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NASA's long trip back to the Moon

Earth from the moon
Earth seen from above the Moon during Apollo 11. Photo: NASA

Fifty years after NASA first landed people on the Moon with its Apollo program, it's now aiming to do it again, but the storied space agency has a long way to go before it can get there.

Driving the news: Last week, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reassigned Bill Gerstenmaier, a beloved figure at the agency, from his role as the head of human exploration and operations.

  • Now NASA is conducting a nationwide search for its next head of human exploration and other positions that would supervise the key parts of the Artemis program aimed at getting people back to the Moon by 2024, as directed by the Trump administration.

What's happening: NASA is facing both political and technical headwinds.

  • One of the biggest challenges for NASA right now is getting its Space Launch System rocket flying in the coming year. The huge rocket, being built primarily by Boeing for NASA, is billions of dollars over budget and has been delayed for years, but all of the agency's future Moon plans depend on it. A recent report suggests the rocket's first flight could slip to as late as 2021.
  • NASA's Orion capsule — designed to bring people into orbit around the Moon — has also faced its own delays and cost overruns.
    • The agency also has big plans to build a small space station called the Gateway in orbit around the Moon by 2023. No part of the Gateway has been launched, but NASA has contracted Maxar to develop the power and propulsion element for it.
  • NASA is also asking private companies to develop concepts for lunar landers that could take people down to the surface of the Moon from the Gateway after the Orion docks.

What they're saying: Bridenstine says NASA will be able to rise to the technical challenge set forth by the administration. The political risks, however, are dicier.

  • "If it wasn't for the political risk, we would be on the Moon right now. In fact, we would probably be on Mars right now," Bridenstine said during a press call Monday that focused less on the Moon and more on Mars.
  • Bridenstine has said that it will likely take about $20 billion over the next 4 years to make Artemis a reality. It's unclear if Congress will get onboard for the mission, however.
  • “The program we have executed to return to exploration is in no way comparable to Apollo in intensity or commitment,” John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios earlier this month.