The worst-kept secret in space policy is finally out: The Trump administration wants to send astronauts back to the moon.
On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the administration is directing NASA back to the moon instead of continuing on with the Obama administration’s plans to send people to Mars, bypassing the moon in the coming decades.
“We will return American astronauts to the moon — not only to leave behind footprints and flags but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said during the first meeting of the National Space Council, an advisory board of space policy experts.
It’s a welcome change that the administration is finally speaking openly about heading back to the moon, but it’s still unclear exactly what steps it will take to get there. This also throws NASA’s plans for a direct-to-Mars approach out the window.
The space agency had been working toward a crewed Mars mission for basically the entirety of the Obama administration, so shifting back to a moon focus will take quite a bit of rethinking.
The new plan will also require significant support from Congress in the form of funding, so this is simply the start of a very long process to take humans back to the moon for the first time since the end of the Apollo missions in 1972.
The Trump administration’s pivot to the moon in many ways feels predictable because the “moon or Mars” debate is seemingly partisan.
The Bush administration had a whole plan to go back to the moon and was even building a rocket to make it happen before the Obama administration changed NASA’s focus and sent us on a journey to Mars, cutting out the moon. That journey has likely come to an end thanks to President Donald Trump’s new vision.
A sad joke in the space community centers around the idea that Republican administrations will focus on returning us to the moon, but once Democrats take over, they’ll throw out that plan — and much of the technology that was already built around it — to head elsewhere.
This policy whiplash means that NASA’s directive will change every eight years or so, and it all but assures that we’ll never get anywhere aside from the International Space Station in the meantime.
One gets the sense that if the two main political parties would just agree on a destination, we might already be there.
It’s a testament to the vastness of the partisan divide that Republicans and Democrats in Washington look to the night sky and point at completely different things.
Most people speaking to the council were representatives of private companies who have had dealings with the government in the past or are expected to in the future.
It’s clear that the administration is interested in using assets from private companies like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and SpaceX to make its space dreams a reality.
Pence made clear that he believes some of the best space ideas will come from people outside of the government.
“I think today we proved that many of the best ideas that will shape American space policy will come from outside the halls of government,” Pence said during the meeting.
“I can assure all of those present that we will continue to avail ourselves of the very best and brightest American minds as we develop policies for presentation to President Trump.”