The Trump administration has set NASA’s main goal for manned spaceflight as a sustainable human return to the moon, with eventual human missions to Mars. During what amounted to a pep talk at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence reiterated his commitment to this goal.
“We are also renewing our national commitment to discovery and exploration and to writing the next great chapter of our nation’s journey into space,” Pence said. “NASA will amaze the world with our daring heroes.”
Unfortunately for presidents serving up to two four-year terms, government spaceflight moves at an icy pace during the modern era. No astronauts will walk on Mars during the Trump presidency or even on the moon. Former presidents with ambitions for the moon, Mars or asteroids have faced similar conundrums because it takes so long to secure funding for these plans, finalize designs, build and test, and finally fly. Long before astronauts go on the run, a new administration takes up residence in the White House.
However, during his speech Thursday, Pence revealed the White House’s plan to return to the moon during Trump’s presidency. Assuming Trump wins a second term (admittedly, we’re getting into the theoretical weed here), NASA would have until late 2024 to “return to the moon.” Therefore, the next line from Pence’s speech is significant.
“Our government is working tirelessly to get a U.S. crew aboard the lunar platform by the end of 2024,” Pence told a large audience on Thursday at Teague Auditorium on the space center’s campus.
Can it be done?
Placing people aboard a Deep Space Gateway in orbit around the moon would be a new and new achievement for NASA. During the Apollo program, crews may have orbited and landed on the moon, but they never stayed more than a few days. The Apollo 17 crew spent the most time on the moon: 6 days and 3 hours, totaling more than 75 orbits.
Aboard the Gateway, astronauts could spend weeks or even months in close proximity to the moon, providing humanity with a base camp for visits to the lunar surface or, much later, Mars. With humans near the moon, NASA was also able to plausibly demonstrate that it had taken a first step on a sustainable path of human exploration to the moon, Mars and beyond.
In short, it would be a remarkable achievement in space for the Trump administration. But is it doable?
After Pence’s speech, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and Johnson Space Center director Mark Geyer met with a handful of reporters. Ars asked the pair whether a timeline of 2024, barely more than six years from now, would be realistic.
“That’s the goal, and I think we can achieve it,” Bridenstine said. “If you think about the launch of SLS and Orion, we should get the first flight in 2020. We need to make sure that a few years after that we launch the power and propulsion system for the Gateway, and a year after that we start to launch habitation. At that point, we’ll be ready to put American astronauts into orbit on the first station ever built and placed in orbit around the moon.
This timeline raises some important questions, perhaps most notably about the rocket NASA is counting on to help assemble the Gateway. While a first version of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will be ready in early 2020, NASA will need an upgraded version of the SLS rocket, known as Block 1B, to complete a station in orbit around the moon. .
The main SLS upgrade is a new upper stage, the Exploration Upper Stage. This will take four or five years (and billions of dollars) to build and test. Geyer confirmed that NASA needs the more powerful variant of the SLS to launch both the crewed Orion spacecraft and a residential module at the same time. The habitation module cannot be launched alone because it lacks its own power, attitude control, and other components of a spacecraft bus.
Therefore, before a crew can visit the Deep Space Gateway and live on board, NASA needs an upgraded SLS rocket. It’s true to say that, privately, many engineers at NASA and outside the agency have a healthy skepticism about Block 1B’s readiness by 2024.
In addition to the rocket, NASA must also build the Gateway itself. For now, the Gateway remains a theoretical construction with no hardware yet designed or metal cut. To be ready by 2024, NASA should soon commit a design for the Gateway elements, including power and propulsion systems, a habitat module, an airlock and more. NASA is still making requirements and taking proposals from suppliers for these components. If none of this is confirmed, NASA would have to act quickly to finalize its requirements, select companies to build the components, complete that work, and get everything ready for launch.
Perhaps that was one of the reasons for Pence’s visit to the Johnson Space Center, although the trip to the Houston area served mainly to support the campaigns of Republicans in Texas running for Congress. To his packed audience at Teague Auditorium, Pence urged the space agency staff to move forward with greater urgency.
“So today I just want to give you a challenge,” he said. “As we write this new chapter of American exploration, I urge you to embrace this new energy and these new opportunities. Re-dedicate yourself to NASA’s mission after you leave here today.”
It will take significant commitment (and funding) if NASA is to fulfill the Trump presidency’s desire to return to the moon by the end of 2024.