Trump says US will return to moon — Now he has to make it happen
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A month after he traveled to NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePolitical figures pay tribute to Charles Krauthammer Hollywood goes low when it takes on Trump 'Queer Eye' star recounts his visit to White House MORE visited the Kennedy Space Center and addressed an audience of aerospace workers on the future of the civil space program. Pence articulated the new space exploration policy that has been long rumored since before Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTom Arnold claims to have unreleased 'tapes' of Trump Cohen distances himself from Tom Arnold, says they did not discuss Trump US military indefinitely suspends two training exercises with South Korea MORE was elected president. He said, “Our nation will return to the moon, and we will put American boots on the face of Mars.”

NASA has officially already embarked on a program called the Journey to Mars. However, Pence, by putting the moon back on the space agency’s agenda, reversed a directive announced by then President Obama at the space center a little more than seven years before. By announcing the policy change, the vice president realigned American space policy to the consensus of the scientific community, much of the commercial sector and the international community. 

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Of course, we have seen this movie before, twice, as a matter of fact. Two presidents named George Bush announced bold space exploration programs only to see them dashed on the shoals of politics. One might be forgiven for wondering if we’re in for a third iteration of the cycle of an announcement, lack of effective follow-through, then eventual cancellation.

 

Pence, who will chair the newly established National Space Council, should remember the following paraphrase of a maxim first expressed by Napoleon: If you start to return to the moon, then return to the moon.

One fortunate thing regarding a return to the moon is that both NASA and SpaceX are already building some of the hardware needed to accomplish the task. NASA’s Orion deep-space ship and heavy-lift Space Launch System are slated for an uncrewed flight in early 2019 and a crewed flight around the moon two years later. SpaceX has announced that it intends to conduct a circumlunar flight using a the Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon Heavy in 2018 at the earliest. All that is needed, at a minimum, is a lunar lander.

The first thing that the Trump administration needs to do to make the return to the moon a reality is to acquire the third part of the architecture, a lunar lander. This last piece of hardware needed to return to the moon should be acquired commercially. A number of companies have already either mastered vertical takeoff and landing technology (such as SpaceX and Blue Origin) or are working on small lunar landers )such as Moon Express and Astrobotic).

A lunar commercial crew competition should also be launched, similar to the commercial crew program that is creating privately-run spacecraft to go to low Earth orbit. NASA should offer to help subsidize the building of commercial lunar landers capable of taking astronauts to and from the lunar surface. The new program should be started sooner rather than later, the better to prove the administration’s seriousness about returning to the moon.

It goes without saying that the White House needs to send to Congress a supplemental funding request to get the lunar commercial crew started. The old cliché of “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” applies here. Trump should make the official announcement.

A number of other things have to happen. International partners need to be reached out to. A date for the first lunar landing in 50 years should be announced, preferably on or before December 2022, five decades after Apollo 17. Plans should be laid for an extensive program of lunar expiation leading to a moon base that will include international and commercial partners who will not only explore the moon but develop it economically. 

The right words have been spoken. It is time for them to be followed by deeds.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has just published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 


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