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The coronavirus pandemic argues for more funding for NASA’s Artemis program, not less

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Recently, space journalist Eric Berger posed an interesting question on Twitter.

“Will be interesting to see how NASA gins up billions more for Artemis in the midst of a deep recession, in an election year, with the only near-term goal of the program a mad-dash to the lunar surface by 2024, which everyone agrees is technically very unlikely, while teleworking.”

Berger asks a serious question. Imagine that next fall the United States is in a recession brought on by the coronavirus. Some latter-day Walter Mondale could demand, “Why are we proposing to spend all this money on a moon landing, which we already did 50 years ago, when so many Americans are unemployed and need help from their government?”

The politician might also be snarky enough to note that the coronavirus has delayed testing of the Space Launch System moon rocket. The solution to that problem resides in effective treatments and a vaccine for the disease.

If such a politician were to state that the coronavirus outbreak forecloses any attempt to return to the moon, he or she would be committing an either/or fallacy. Mondale committed the fallacy 50 years ago when he suggested that the United States could not explore space and deal with social problems such as poverty. Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver recently did the same thing when she suggested that space exploration needed to be put aside in order to deal with climate change. A helpful suggestion for such people would be to embrace the awesome power of the word “and.”

The economic downturn likely to result from the coronavirus pandemic means that the United States needs to return to the moon more than ever. The economic stimulus of continuing the Artemis lunar program is too important for the recovery to cast aside on a whim.

Many long-term reasons exist to return to the moon, ranging from science, commerce (such as lunar mining, space tourism and space manufacturing) and political soft power. However, as the 1970s-era Chase Econometrics study suggested, large-scale space exploration projects such as the Apollo program and the current Artemis return to the moon project have a direct and immediate simulative effect on the American economy.

If someone in Congress decides to defund the Artemis program because of the coronavirus disaster, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former politician with enormous skills from his former occupation, would likely respond saying, “Let me see if I understand you correctly. You would like to lay off thousands of engineers, scientists and other space workers in the middle of a recession? Would you like to economically devastate large sections of states such as Texas, Alabama and Florida, already hard hit economically? Is that what you’re saying?” 

Most politicians in Washington find it hard to think past the next election. The deferment of all the great science and space-based industries that could happen years from now by cancelling or cutting back Artemis is one thing. Angering constituents by putting them out of work in the middle of a recession and in an election year is quite another.

With huge economic stimulus packages being floated to fight the economic downturn, it behooves Congress to set aside any thought of cutting back NASA and the Artemis program. Indeed, since Congress is disposed to spend money, it should seriously consider adding to NASA’s budget. 

The space agency will find productive ways to spend the money, not just on Artemis but also a number of proposed planetary missions, including to Venus, Triton and Io. Such would have an immediate and a long-term economic benefit.

Also, whoever is doing policy for the Joe Biden campaign should take note. Biden has not offered his own space policy proposal. For a number of reasons, the Obama space program — with which the former vice president is associated — was terrible from both a political and practical standpoint. Someone should write Biden a speech reaffirming his support for the Artemis program. Doing so would not only remove an issue with which Trump could hammer him on, but would also give him an opportunity to declare independence from Obama. Biden must run as his own man.

Besides, on top of 9/11, endless wars and political acrimony occurring in the 21st century, the coronavirus pandemic has been a dispiriting experience. Wouldn’t it be uplifting if humankind were to do something that would bring joy and pride back to this benighted civilization, like returning to the moon, this time to stay?

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Tags Artemis Congress Coronavirus coronavirus stimulus COVID-19 COVID19 Jim Bridenstine Joe Biden NASA
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