Last week, Vice President Mike Pence announced a bold new mission for NASA: creating a sustained human presence, perhaps like a lunar base, on the Moon’s surface. It’s a big change for the agency, which has been focused on going to Mars for the last seven years. But just saying NASA is going to do something isn’t enough for the space agency to actually accomplish a task. Ambitious programs require extra money and sustained commitment from Congress in order to become a reality.
Fortunately, NASA is already working on new hardware for deep space missions that could be used to go to the Moon. For the last decade, the space agency has been developing a giant rocket called the Space Launch System, and a crew capsule called Orion to take people to Mars, and those vehicles could easily be used to take astronauts to the lunar surface instead. But establishing a sustained presence on the Moon is going to require the creation of a lunar lander, habitats, life support systems, and more. And all of that will require extra money and time to make. At one point, NASA estimated a return to the Moon would cost upwards of $100 billion.
And there aren’t many options for where that money can come from. Either Congress can raise NASA’s budget by billions of dollars each year, or the space agency can rework its existing programs to free up funds for technology development. But such changes aren’t easy to implement, and it’s unclear which route the new administration will take in order to follow through on Pence’s bold proclamation.
A very obvious way to provide money for a lunar base is to increase NASA’s budget. And historically, this has worked before. When President Kennedy called for NASA to send humans to the Moon in 1961, the space agency’s annual budget immediately increased by 89 percent the following year. Eventually, NASA would spend the equivalent of $165 billion (in 2005 dollars, adjust for inflation) on the Apollo lunar program. The result: 12 astronauts walked on the Moon.
A similar strategy could be just as effective, but the political climate has changed significantly since Apollo. Kennedy’s speech came at the height of the Cold War, and the US push to the Moon was meant to serve as a show of strength against the USSR and its space initiatives. Half a century later, the US easily dominates in space and there’s no pressing geopolitical need for another ambitious lunar program.
NASA’s budget has diminished since the Kennedy era to just half a percentage of the overall federal budget — about $19 billion a year. The budget has remained stagnant too, even when past presidents have called for ambitious human spaceflight initiatives from NASA. For instance, when President George W. Bush called for a return to the Moon in 2004, NASA’s budget did not significantly increase. Eventually the Obama administration canceled the new Moon program, known as Constellation, arguing that it was grossly underfunded and behind schedule.
So will this time be different? In recent years, Congress has been enthusiastic about NASA, giving the space agency more money than presidents have requested. If the Trump administration does ask for a substantial increase for the space program, Congress may match that and give even more money. “This may be the magic moment when all the forces are going to align and finally we’re going to get some steps forward,” Marcia Smith, a space policy expert and founder of SpacePolicyOnline.com, tells The Verge.
However Smith also notes that a big goal of this administration is to cut the deficit, which makes a substantial budget increase unlikely. “How they’re going to balance money for space exploration versus cutting the deficit is going to be the big challenge,” she says.
Cut funding from other NASA programs
Without a significant budget increase, the administration and Congress may try to free up funds by slashing current NASA programs. And one particular program has been in politicians’ crosshairs lately: Earth science. This program covers the fleet of satellites NASA operates in orbit to study the Earth’s atmosphere, climate change, oceans, and more.
Just before the 2016 election, a space adviser for the Trump campaign suggested getting rid of Earth science at NASA altogether and transitioning the operation of the agency’s satellites to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That way, NASA could focus more on human spaceflight. It’s possible the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress will attempt to follow through on this idea to pursue a lunar base.
However, Earth science still has strong supporters in Congress, who will likely push back against substantial cuts. And while the president did propose trimming Earth science for fiscal year 2018, the reductions were not as bad as many had feared. Plus, even if the entirety Earth science was slashed, the division only takes up $1.8 billion a year. “Cutting science isn’t going to get you the human space exploration budget that is needed,” Laura Forczyk, a space consultant and owner of space research and consulting firm Astralytical, tells The Verge.
That’s why some members of Congress have been eyeing a bigger NASA program to cut: the International Space Station. Slated to last through at least 2024, the ISS requires $3 to $4 billion each year — and Congress wants that money to invest in future projects. In March, Congress held a hearing to discuss what do with the ISS post-2024; experts argued that NASA should eventually hand over operations to private companies. But it’s unclear when the commercial space industry will be ready to take over the ISS — if ever. “There’s a lot of commercial interest in utilizing ISS, but only if NASA pays for it,” says Forczyk. “And very few companies are willing to put in their own money, and very few companies have the resources to put in their own money.”
Without a viable company to take over the ISS by 2024, Congress could lobby for the cancellation of the program, which has cost the US around $78 billion so far. And that may mean de-orbiting the space station piece by piece or boosting it into a higher orbit. “Sooner or later, spacecraft do come to an end of their life,” says Smith.
Commercial and international partners
It’s almost a certainty that NASA will look to both the commercial space industry and the agency’s international partners for help in pulling off a human lunar mission. And the international community is eager to pitch in. The European Space Agency, Russia, Japan, and China are all interested in putting people on the Moon, and these state agencies will likely offer to develop new technologies to be a part of a NASA-led lunar mission.
NASA has a lot more money and experience than most of the other state agencies, so the US will likely need to lead the way in funding and development. But right now, most of the government’s money for human spaceflight is going toward the development of the SLS and Orion combo, which cost about $4 billion a year. Many argue the vehicles are too expensive — both to develop and to fly. NASA could free up funds by switching to cheaper vehicles that are being developed by newer private aerospace companies. “The nation is ready to move on to leveraging the revolution of public-private partnerships,” Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC, a space consulting firm, and a former member of the Trump administration’s NASA transition team, tells The Verge.
Private companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX are developing their own monster rockets that will be able to do more or less what the SLS can do. And these companies are using their own money — from profits to private investments — to fund the development of these vehicles; SpaceX says its money will come from launching commercial satellites and servicing the space station, while Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos is investing billions of his own Amazon stock. Plus, both of these companies are making their rockets reusable, in order to bring down manufacturing costs and make the vehicles cheaper to launch. NASA could potentially use some of the money for SLS and Orion to fund these cheaper vehicles, accelerating their development and freeing up funds for other lunar programs.
Of course, none of these commercial rockets exist yet, so investing in them now is a gamble for the space agency. And there’s another major problem: SLS and Orion have massive support within Congress. Representatives from Alabama, where the SLS is being built, have made it clear that they will defend the rocket’s development at all costs. That makes it unlikely NASA will abandon SLS and Orion completely in favor of commercial rockets.
However, Pence has made it clear that NASA will continue to invest in public-private partnerships, and Miller thinks the commercial space industry will be hard for the administration to ignore. “At some point, when it becomes obvious that the commercial systems are working, putting money into SLS will look very foolish,” he says. “And any member of Congress arguing to do that will be increasing isolated.”
What will happen?
With such airtight support for SLS and Orion in Congress, it seems that the only option is a budget increase of some kind for NASA. As for what’s going to happen, we’ll have to wait. The earliest sign of Trump’s direction for NASA could come in the presidential budget request next year. Perhaps the request will call for funds to develop a lander or for additional public-private partnerships. Or perhaps there will be no substantial changes at all.
If there are no changes to funding, then this latest promise will be just another presidential spaceflight decree that never truly materializes. But if Pence really does want NASA to set up humans on the Moon, his administration and Congress will need more than words: they’ll need cash.