2024 moon landing deadline is definitely political and aspirational — but that’s not all bad
The Trump administration has announced its plan — the Artemis program —returning humans (and sending the first woman) to the surface of the Moon by 2024. From there, NASA intends to pivot to preparation for a human mission to Mars.
At Wednesday’s House hearing on the major development programs supporting the Artemis Program highlighted that a 2024 landing deadline might be more aspirational than actual, but was nonetheless valuable.
Current and former NASA officials noted the value of deadlines as a forcing function, allowing managers to reign in overly enthusiastic engineers trying to perfect every tiny detail and get them around to launching their rocket.
But this kind of deadline is useful in another way. The enormously complexity, difficulty and cost of space programs have specific political consequences. Some politicians may have a personal or parochial interest in space, but for most members of Congress and most occupants of the White House, the payoff times far enough away to make space an uncertain political investment. People are understandably less enthusiastic about supporting something that will not deliver any results until long after its champions have moved on.
Space exploration has enjoyed steady, bipartisan support. Certainly, politicians from both sides of the aisle recognize that space exploration is good for the country. But when it comes to spending political capital, there are light-years of difference between doing something because it is the right thing to do versus doing it for all those very noble reasons and reaping the rewards for doing so.
The current Artemis program may be changing this political calculus for the better. If the Artemis program is successful, it could represent a major shift in the politics of space. Aligning major, headline-making achievements more closely with political cycles means that uncommitted decision-makers will find space a sounder political investment.
And that’s not just for presidents in their second term, either. Senators serve a six-year term; many congressional leadership positions are limited to six years as well. Bringing NASA to a six- to eight-year cadence creates a broad political incentive for all members of Congress and the administration to make space exploration goals happen.
Synchronizing space to a political calendar creates complications. Speeding a program up generally incurs increased risks to cost, performance and safety. But there are at least two mitigating factors at work here.
First, schedule pressure can indeed impact safety — the first example of that is the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts on the launch pad in 1967. NASA and the American space industry are all acutely aware of the risks of outpacing sound judgment. In a world where space exploration is set to achieve major goals on a six- to eight-year political cadence, mishaps mean that political leaders get blamed for the tragic death of astronauts on their watch, rather than celebrating their heroic accomplishments.
The entire political value proposition is underwritten by the centrality of safe success; there is no looming Cold War threat to justify extraordinary risk-taking or failure. In the case of the Artemis, the 2024 goal is sound only so long as NASA feels it can slide the schedule a bit if safety becomes an overriding concern.
Second, a combination of physics, engineering and politics mean that NASA has already made great progress in creating a solid foundation for Artemis. We are not beginning from a cold start. Momentum has been building for 15 years. We will not be paying the kind of premium for speed that we saw with the Apollo program. Instead, we are close to a sustainable program of human deep space exploration that may permit regular, ongoing wins for years and decades to come, especially if we diversify our investments in both established space industry partners and new entrants.
This second point has an important implication. The current orientation toward the moon and Mars started under Bush. Obama administration leadership was critical in maturing the program and introducing key architecture elements. Trump has accelerated the work of the two previous administrations. If we manage to get over the Artemis finish line, this will be a victory with a lot of winners on both sides of the aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Conversely, if the current push falters and fails because it is undercut by Congress, then assigning blame will be straightforward.
Broadly speaking, two things need to happen if the United States is to shift to a more aggressive tempo of major space exploration accomplishments. First, congressional leadership is vital. NASA already has strong bipartisan support, but congressional appropriators and authorizers can provide the stable funding and legislative foundation necessary for both Congress and the White House to continue investing significant effort in big space projects.
Second, NASA and the space industry must continue to change. Gearing up toward a steady, metronome-like beat producing major wins every six- to eight-years, while being safe and prudent, will be a challenge. By no means an impossible effort, but most certainly a difficult one that will require careful deliberation.
Today, Washington feels more combative and divided than ever. NASA is something of an exception; it enjoys bipartisan interest and support. Congressional leadership now means that bipartisan support can produce bipartisan rewards. And if there is a time when the nation needs some big, shared wins, it is now. So, let’s aim for a 2024 landing, be willing to declare something reasonably close to that a win, and get moving.
G. Ryan Faith is a space policy consultant who previously served as a professional staff member supporting the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Faith was previously VICE Media’s Defense and Security editor and a research analyst for the Space Foundation.