Returning to the moon in 5 years is within reach

Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump Pence's office questions Schiff's request to declassify more material from official's testimony: report The House Judiciary Committee's fundamental choice MORE recently announced our national intent to return to the moon by 2024. This isn’t new news — the president signed Space Policy Directive 1 over a year ago that directs NASA to go back to the moon and use the lunar surface as a staging area to explore space beyond the closest rock that rotates around us.

The vice president’s statement put a clear date on the expectation — and that is a new wrinkle. Nonetheless, his announcement seems to have lit off a debate of how realistic this goal is and whether the administration really means it. The reality is this is goal achievable — it’s been done before.

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On a brisk January day in 2004, not quite a year after the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, President George W. Bush visited NASA to announce his “Vision for Space Exploration.” His statement had been in development since the previous summer as the administration collectively sorted through the options for NASA’s future. Underlying the many alternatives was a fundamental challenge to craft a strategic direction for the historic space agency.

The exercise wasn’t to simply tell everyone to think big. It was the duty to think through NASA’s enduring exploration mission to yield benefit to the nation and to humanity more generally. In effect, that task was to define the answer to “what’s the point” of this storied agency and why so many intrepid explorers over generations risk their lives in pursuit of those goals.

The answer that Bush came to express in this policy statement was that exploration is a journey. From where humans are starting, it’ll be a very long journey indeed. It took a few thousand years to explore the planet we occupy and that’s just the land masses which occupy a little more than a quarter of the Earth. The rest is covered by water and we’ve only just begun to plunge those depths. All that exploration has been driven by human curiosity for what’s on the other side of some ridge, to find new places to settle and to seek new opportunities to enrich the human condition. Exploration is a powerful human instinct that’s baked into our DNA and evident from the time we are infants until the end of days.

The Vision for Space Exploration articulated 15 years ago was an attempt to capture that spirit and lay out the milestones — the stepping stones — in a journey of exploration to worlds unknown and places only dimly imagined. The near-term goal is to return to the moon, a place that only a dozen humans have ever walked, but first achieved nearly 50 years ago when Neil Armstrong uttered the immortal words “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” We duplicated that experience a few more times, but little more than three years later, we took the aspiration to go further and put it on hold.

After chasing the original goal, we’d beaten a powerful adversary to the prize and made the point made by John F. Kennedy in launching that quest that Americans could do anything we put our mind to. Once achieved, we moved on since we couldn’t quite agree on what to do next and awaited the technology developments required to exploit the Apollo achievement.

The outlines of that 2004 vision were to develop the tools and capacity to explore well beyond the limits of the rockets designed to get us just a comparative stone’s throw away. What’s emerged in the intervening years are the technologies and capabilities to get us to the next level. We’ve come to understand something we really weren’t focused on when we went to the moon five decades ago. We came to appreciate that 90 percent of all the energy we need to get to space is expended just getting out of the grip of our own Earth’s gravity. Thereafter, the speed and time it takes to go elsewhere are largely dependent on laws of physics and the principles of orbital mechanics that got us to the moon.

Until we can harness technologies to generate energy without carrying it all with us, we’re using derivatives of the same chemical propulsion technology that launched Alan Shepard, the first American to space in 1961. All the fire and fury generated by rockets is what it takes just to leave this rock. And by the time one gets to space, the power to go beyond is mostly gone.

We also came to appreciate that the moon has one-sixth the gravity of the Earth, and now we have the means to take advantage of that. Less energy is required to get off that rock than off this one, so lifting off from there rather than here gives us the option to go elsewhere with more on board to support the trip.

Now that we have the technology to manufacture or duplicate most anything nearly anywhere, the idea of establishing an infrastructure on the moon makes this well within reach. Once we set up shop to assemble the means to go elsewhere, we’ll be motivated to develop the means and the capacity for in-space propulsion that reduces time to any destination. That has profound implications for human endurance and maximizes the time to explore.

NASA also plans to establish a space station that orbits the moon. The Lunar Gateway program will operate much as the International Space Station has for nearly two decades to provide a continuous capacity to live and work in space to prepare to go beyond. But it will also provide a waystation to service missions in route to other destinations.

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The emergence of a growing number of commercial companies that provide launch services to resupply the International Space Station is the beginning of a regular operational capacity to sustain activities while NASA develops the capabilities to explore beyond. The next generation launch systems have been in development for years and well on the way to fielding. With the months and short years ahead, we’ll witness the deployment of new capabilities to take Americans to space.

In September 1962, President Kennedy set a goal to get to the moon for the first time within that decade and they achieved that less than seven years later. They started with computing power and communications capacity that collectively amounted to about what can be found today in an iPhone. They had to use lots of mass and lots of fuel to accomplish what we can do today with a fraction of both. With the technology we have today, returning to the Moon is within reach in five years. As we keep rediscovering, exploration really is a journey. It only gets longer when we take a break.

Sean O’Keefe served as NASA administrator from 2001 to 2005. O’Keefe is also a professor of public administration at the Syracuse University Maxwell School.