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Is The Trump Administration's Moon-Shot Possible?

The International Space Station, with a crew of six onboard, is seen in silhouette as it transits the Moon at roughly five miles per second, Saturday, March 16, 2019. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky
The International Space Station, with a crew of six onboard, is seen in silhouette as it transits the Moon at roughly five miles per second, Saturday, March 16, 2019. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The Trump administration wants humans back on the moon in five years. Speaking to the National Space Council at a meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, Vice President Mike Pence set the administration’s moon-shot deadline. He wants Americans back on the moon by 2024.

“And let me be clear: The first woman and the next man on the Moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets, from American soil."

There’s urgency in the mission, driven by moon-shot ambitions of private industries and other countries like China.

Pence’s goal of returning humans to the moon by 2024 accelerates the deadline of NASA by four years, but NASA has run into problems with its SLS rocket which has been plagued by delays and a ballooning budget.

Moving the deadline up would require a “major course correction for NASA,” said Pence. “If commercial rockets are the only way to get Americans to the moon in the next five years, than commercial rockets it will be."

Despite the challenges, the agency’s administrator Jim Bridenstine said he is up to the task. "Our agency, NASA, is going to do everything in its power to meet that vision, to meet that deadline, and you have my full commitment to doing that."

So just how realistic is the possibility of putting American astronauts on the moon in 2024? "It is possible, but not probable," said space policy analyst and founder of Astrolytical. "What we see is a directive from the executive branch to complete a mission in five years, but what we do not see is the corresponding money from the Congressional branch."

In fact, there’s less money in the budget for NASA’s SLS and the Trump administration’s budget request didn’t include any additional funding for an expedited moon mission.

Ultimately, it’s up to Congress to appropriate NASA’s funding, which in turn directs the agency and its long-term goals, but the moon-shot is on the top of Pence’s priority list.

"It’s a tennis match," said Keith Cowing, editor of NASAWatch.com. "The White House will set a goal and Congress will come back and say ‘here’s what we think.’"

While NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said he’s confident in the agency's SLS rocket, Cowing said the administrator will look at all options to get to the moon. “It may well be that his function to be the first NASA administration to step back and say there are other ways to go explore the Universe than my predecessor has. I’m going to take advantage of them and the White House has got my back as I do this."

NASA is already using commercial partners to get lunar payloads to the moon with it’s CLPS program -- one of those companies bidding for a contact is Cape Canveral-based Moon Express.

When SLS eventually launches, it will be from the Kennedy Space Center. Space Florida vice president Dale Ketcham said many commercial partners are already here in Florida, which puts the state in a prime position to join the lunar efforts.

"Regardless of what path we end up pursuing, I think Florida is in a really good position to support and thrive regardless of what direction we go," said Ketcham. "We just want to succeed."

Despite delays and uncertain budgets, space policy analyst Laura Forczyk thinks success is attainable. "NASA technologically could do this, it all comes down to budget and political will. It sounds like political will is picking up."

That political momentum will be tested as Bridenstine meets with Congressional subcommittees to discuss the NASA budget request starting this week. Those hearings could be early indicators of the moon-shot’s success.

Brendan Byrne is WMFE's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the WMFE newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing WMFE's internship program.

Byrne also hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.
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