by Douglas Messier
This week, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 10, the final mission before the first manned landing on the moon by Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969.
During the 8-day voyage, Tom Stafford and Eugene Cernan took the lunar module (LM) to within 47,400 feet (14.4 km) of the lunar surface before rendezvousing with the command service module (CSM) piloted by John Young.
Despite a few hiccups, the mission was a success, clearing the way for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to fulfill the late President John F. Kennedy’s goal of a manned moon landing by the end of the decade.
The crew named the CSM “Charlie Brown” and the LM “Snoopy” after characters in Charles Schultz’s popular comic strip, “Peanuts..” Snoopy is the mascot of NASA’s safety program. Each year, the space agency’s astronauts bestow Silver Snoopy Awards for outstanding performance in contributing to flight safety and mission success.
The Apollo lunar program ended in December 1972 after six moon landings when the crew of Apollo 17 commanded by Cernan splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. In the years that followed, NASA’s astronauts has been stuck in orbit as various plans by different presidential administrations to return them to the lunar surface have come and gone.
On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1989, President George H.W. Bush proposed the Space Exploration Intiative (SEI), that would have had astronauts returning to the moon to stay and then voyaging to Mars over the next 30 years.
NASA pretty much demolished the initiative with a 90-Day Study that pegged the total cost of the program at roughly $500 billion. SEI didn’t survive the first Bush presidency; the Clinton Administration canceled it after assuming office in 1993.
In 2004, President George W. Bush unveiled his Vision for Space Exploration, which had NASA establishing a permanent base on the lunar surface by 2020. President Barack Obama subsequently canceled the underfunded and behind schedule program after assuming office in 2009.
While Charlie Brown and Snoopy were good lucks charms for NASA during the Apollo program, the federal government’s constantly shifting priorities and unwillingness to properly fund programs has created a meme based on one of “Peanuts” long-running gags.
Lucy Van Pelt promises to hold a football on the ground to allow Charlie Brown to kick it. Just as he prepares to do so, Lucy pulls the ball away causing Charlie to go flying threw the air and fall on his back. No matter how many times she does this, Charlie still believes that this time he will be able to finally kick the ball.
Today, NASA is once again planning to send astronauts to the lunar surface with the Artemis program. Until two months ago, the space agency had been aiming to do so in 2028. Yes, the agency said, it will take longer than Apollo did, but this time America would be back on the moon not for brief visits but to stay.
In March, the Trump Administration disrupted this plan by declaring the landing should take place by 2024. The new date was not set in accordance with any carefully laid NASA assessment of whether it could do it by then. The space agency had no plan at the time.
Instead, the date was set by political expedience. It would allow President Donald Trump to place his brand on the moon by the end of a hoped-for second term. And it would give Vice President Mike Pence, who is overseeing the plan as chairman of the National Space Council, something to run on as he seeks the presidency in 2024.
The Administration’s announcement of the 2024 target date without NASA having a clear plan to do so has caused consternation among some members of Congress. Legislators are skeptical about the urgency of a return to the moon within five years. Democrats are reluctant to cut other NASA programs to give a president and vice president they loath a political victory in space.
The lack of details about the plan haven’t helped. Last week, the Administration submitted a $1.6 billion supplemental appropriations request for the fiscal year 2020 budget. The request left House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) baffled.
“While I am a supporter of challenging human space exploration endeavors that can take us to the Moon and eventually to Mars, based on the limited information provided to Congress it is impossible to judge the merits of the President’s budget amendment,” Johnson said in a statement.
“We don’t know how much money will be required in total to meet the arbitrary 2024 Moon landing deadline or how that money will be spent,” she added. “We don’t know how much additional money will subsequently be required to turn the crash program to get astronauts to the Moon by 2024 into a sustainable exploration program that will lead to Mars. And we don’t know what NASA’s technical plan for its lunar program is.”
On Friday, the House commerce, justice and science subcommittee voted to boost NASA’s budget for FY 2020 but largely ignored the supplemental request. The subcommittee also rejected the administration’s lunar exploration priorities, which were included in the original budget request in March.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who has been working over the last two months to provide those very details to Congress, has stressed repeatedly that America’s return to the moon requires a broad consensus and bipartisan support. However, key members of Congress are feeling largely out of the loop on this new plan.
America’s plans to once again send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit hang in the balance. The question remains: will the new Artemis program revive the glories of the Apollo missions? Or will it be another example of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown?
Time will tell.