Can America return to the moon by 2024?

At the most recent meeting of the National Space Council, held at NASA’s Marshal Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence: Mueller report confirms 'no collusion, no obstruction' Melania Trump, Karen Pence say they're ready to serve four more years in White House The Turkish rupture could cause a fissure in NATO MORE ordered NASA to get American moon boots on the lunar surface by 2024, by any means necessary. The challenge, and NASA’s response, has created a curious situation fraught with both technical and political peril.

 As Ars Technica noted: 

“What happens next is not entirely clear. Little was mentioned of budget. Unless NASA entirely scraps the SLS program and its $3 billion annual budget, the agency will have no funds for instituting a lunar landing program. But as an SLS demise seems unlikely to happen (at least for now), NASA's exploration program will require a multibillion-dollar infusion to be viable. “ 

Several commercial alternatives exist for getting America back on the moon. SpaceX’s Elon Musk is building a big rocket in Boca Chica, Texas that would serve quite nicely for a lunar exploration effort, when it becomes available.

However, for now at least, NASA is going to cling to the old plan that includes the heavy-lift Space Launch System and the orbiting lunar gateway, albeit on an accelerated schedule. The Space Agency claims that the SLS is the best alternative from a technical and cost perspective and, more importantly, Congress, reasoning the rocket provide thousands of jobs, agrees. 

One can be forgiven for feeling just a hint of cynicism and doubt at Pence’s JFK-like announcement. Other administrations have made bold space exploration speeches only to see the best-laid plans collapse into a mire of technical complications and political wrangling. According to Space News, the reaction to Pence’s initiative have been somewhat mixed.  Is thinking that things will be different this time an example of choosing to hope over experience?

During a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds NASA, space agency head Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineThis is not the time to abandon NASA's Space Launch System Can America return to the moon by 2024? Why NASA announced and then canceled an all-woman spacewalk MORE offered assurances that any commercial alternative to the Space Launch System is off the table. He also suggested that both the NASA and Boeing contractor teams are working diligently to reduce costs and advance the schedule for the development and flights of the SLS. The mere threat of going commercial and Pence’s mandate to return Americans to the moon in five years has concentrated quite a few minds. 

So, can Americans return to the moon in five years, especially considering that NASA is retaining the expensive and trouble-prone SLS rocket? The answer is yes, so long as three things happen.

1. The schedule and cost savings measures that Bridenstine has promised must be implemented. The changes may accept more risk in exchange for time and cost savings, but that fact must be accepted.

2. NASA must get considerably more money than planned. Bridenstine assured the congressional subcommittee that the space agency must acquire the Exploration Upper Stage that would make the SLS a true moon rocket, capable of taking people to the lunar surface. He reiterated the need for more money at a recent NASA townhall, as well as the need for the Lunar Gateway, though perhaps in a stripped-down version. The Trump administration is committed to extra money. Congress is an open question.

3. NASA should have a commercial alternative in play in case developing the Space Launch System proves to be impossible to achieve in a timely, less costly manner. Fortunately, SpaceX is currently developing and testing just such a rocket in south Texas. The rocket is planned for its own flight around the moon no earlier than 2023. No doubt Musk would be pleased to take a crew, including NASA astronauts, to the lunar surface for an agreeable fee. Bridenstine mentioned the use of an enhanced Falcon Heavy during the townhall.

Speaking of a commercial alternative for going back to the moon, Newt Gingrich, who famously proposed a lunar base during his 2012 presidential run, suggested that a private sector space race should be set up. Boeing would use the current architecture with the SLS, SpaceX would use its big rocket, and Blue Origin would use launch vehicles and lunar landers it is developing. The winner gets a considerable cash prize.

Skepticism at returning to the moon by 2024 is certainly warranted, considering history. However, allBridenstine and NASA must do to allay such suspicions is to make the thing happen. If they can do it, the long delayed, long dreamed-of return to the moon will have finally become reality, with all that implies. 

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”