It was supposed to be the crowning moment of Donald Trump’s second term. By 2024, the Trump administration aimed to place astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than half a century, bolstering a long-term U.S. presence on the lunar surface for science and technology. mining – and as a path station for a future mission to Mars.
But then Trump lost his candidacy for reelection. NASA’s Artemis program is now in limbo. The 2024 target was still ambitious and arbitrary, tied to Trump’s dream of a second term. A year after the onset of a global pandemic with all the economic stress it entails, landing astronauts on the moon in just four years seems increasingly far-fetched.
Observers of President-elect Joe Biden’s plans for NASA say Artemis will not be Biden’s space priority. Space climate science, which has withered under Trump, is likely to trump a moon landing. Biden’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
“I think the Biden administration is very likely to continue the Artemis program, but relax the 2024 target date for the first manned mission to the lunar surface,” John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University . “Biden is likely to give more funding to NASA’s role in understanding and managing climate change, so a slower pace for Artemis seems prudent.”
For decades, the moon and Mars have taken turns as the top space exploration priorities of successive presidential administrations. George W. Bush wanted to return to the moon. Barack Obama wanted to jump the moon and head straight for Mars. The Bush and Obama administrations funded elements of technology applicable to either mission, including the Orion space capsule and the heavy rocket for the space launch system.
The moon’s vast mineral reserves were a temptation the Trump administration could not resist. In late 2016, Trump’s transition team meticulously questioned NASA about the possibility of mining the moon for tantalum and other rare metals. Trump’s plan from the start was to land on the moon no later than 2028.
But later in his tenure, Trump developed an at times odd fixation on space. The president succeeded in pushing for the creation of a military space force over objections from his then Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Space Force started off as a joke Trump liked to tell at rallies. “We do a lot of work in space, and I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force, ”Trump said at a 2018 rally in San Diego. “I wasn’t really serious, then I said, ‘What a great idea. We may have to do it. ”
The Space Force quickly made contact with the Trump base. Along with “building the wall,” “Space Force” has become a popular song at Trump’s many rallies. The Trump campaign peddled hats and t-shirts with fantastic Space Force logos, including one that was a clear rip off of NASA’s own logo.
Apparently, overlapping the Republican Base’s love for the Space Force, in March 2019, the Trump administration surprised the space community by announcing a new 2024 deadline for putting NASA’s boots on the moon.
A few weeks later, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross suggested financial motivation for the new deadline. Noting that several other countries have launched lunar probes in recent years and that China and Russia are planning manned lunar missions, Ross urged NASA to plant American flags on lucrative lunar mineral deposits – as soon as possible. “As more countries land on the moon, we risk a situation of the Wild West without clarification of property rights,” Ross said.
NASA was quick to name 18 Artemis astronauts, including several women. But the 2024 deadline has never really been anchored in the cold and harsh realities of space exploration. Spacecraft are expensive. And NASA hasn’t posed humans on an alien body for decades. The agency doesn’t even have a modern moon suit.
It does not help that NASA is determined to integrate Artemis in a future mission to Mars, by building a so-called “gateway” space station which can serve both as a staging base for lunar explorers and as a route station for them. astronauts heading to Mars in the 2030s, for example. A simpler alternate plan could involve astronauts traveling directly from Earth to the Moon, as their predecessors did in the 1960s and 1970s.
But NASA no longer just does things. Two complex parts of the Artemis system – the space launch system rockets and a lunar lander – have proven particularly upsetting. The rockets are based on material left behind by the Space Shuttle program, which ended in 2011. They need to be refurbished, reconditioned, and retested – an effort that could end up costing $ 17 billion.
NASA had hoped to launch the SLS rocket on a trial basis in 2017. This is not the case. The new goal is to fire up the giant booster before the end of 2021. Even though SLS is working, there is nothing to carry around yet. The Orion capsule, which carries the crew, is unfinished. The lander that will transfer astronauts to the lunar surface still exists largely on paper.
The space agency has already paid Lockheed Martin nearly $ 3 billion to build three Orion capsules. Ideally, one of them would be ready to fly to the top of the SLS at the end of next year.
But during ground tests in November, engineers discovered a flaw in one of the capsule’s backup power and data systems. To avoid further delays, NASA plans to conduct Orion’s first unmanned test-launch with the broken component still on board. “NASA has confidence in the health of the entire power and data system,” the agency said.
Fixing the flaw could ultimately delay and increase the cost of the overall Artemis program, further prompting the Biden administration to simply push the moon’s deadline to the right by a few years.
A program-wide slowdown would also save NASA time in choosing a lunar lander. In April, the agency called on three companies – Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX – to pitch concepts.
NASA plans to settle on two models of landers this spring. But in reality, building and testing the landers could cost billions of dollars. And Congress was in no rush to provide the funding. NASA has requested $ 3.4 billion for the landing work in 2021. Lawmakers have only approved $ 1 billion.
Money is likely to tighten. “COVID and the related recession means federal budgets will be tight, with many competing priorities, and if Republicans keep the Senate, [majority leader Sen. Mitch] McConnell is unlikely to be generous, ”David Burbach, a space expert at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island, told The Daily Beast. “Democrats support Artemis overall, but it’s lukewarm support. A landing in the mid-2020s requires significant increases in funding from NASA and it seems unlikely.
Biden has yet to nominate a candidate to succeed Trump’s NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. Whoever ends up being “will give NASA a higher priority for climate science,” Chris Impey, a University of Arizona astronomer, told the Daily Beast.
Despite all its hiccups, the Artemis program enjoys wide, albeit lukewarm, support in Congress. After decades of work costing billions of dollars, NASA’s moonshot has political and industrial momentum. “NASA enjoys strong bipartisan support for the Artemis program and for NASA’s science, aeronautics and space programs, and we look forward to continuing U.S. exploration plans on behalf of the next administration,” said a NASA spokesperson at The Daily Beast.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to put Americans on the dusty lunar surface in just four years. A landing in 2024 was unlikely under the incumbent president. It’s even less likely under whoever comes. And Joe Biden, in the eyes of these observers, seems to agree perfectly with that. “It’s clear that a moon landing is not going to happen on his watch,” Impey said.
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