Feb 18, 2020 - Science

Trump's improbable moonshot

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NASA is unlikely to meet its deadline of sending astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024, even with a large influx of funding.

Why it matters: The Artemis mission to send people back to the Moon is the Trump administration's flagship space policy, and its aggressive, politically-motivated timeline is its hallmark.

  • However, Congress isn't sold on the idea that NASA should or can return to the Moon in four years and has been reluctant to fund that plan, instead favoring a 2028 landing instead.
  • If President Trump isn't re-elected, Artemis' future hangs in the balance, as new administrations have changed goalposts for NASA to differentiate themselves from those that came before.

What's happening: The Trump administration is requesting about $35 billion over the next four years for the Artemis program.

  • That money would go toward funding the development of a lunar lander, advanced spacesuits and other technology needed to get people back to the lunar surface.
  • The budget also allocates money for a lunar Gateway — a small space station orbiting the Moon that would act as a jumping off point for missions to the surface.

Yes, but: Even if that amount of money is allocated for the Moon mission, it still won't guarantee a lunar landing in four years.

  • The technological hurdles NASA will need to overcome in order to make a Moon landing happen in 2024 are extreme and will likely require more time in development than anticipated.
  • "Everything has to basically go perfectly — all the prior missions, all the testing, all the development," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios. "So, I think it's a really uphill slog to get to a 2024 landing."

Between the lines: Some say that shifting Artemis' plans could give the space agency a good shot at getting people to the lunar surface in four years.

  • Instead of spending time and resources on a lunar Gateway, going directly to the Moon from Earth could be quicker and more efficient.
  • However, NASA wants to be sure not to repeat the mistakes of Apollo and instead plans to focus on going to the Moon to stay, not just for a short-term political win.
  • The Gateway — which already has interest from international partners — could be a big enough investment to make sure the program has staying power, whereas a more direct approach could potentially be more easily canceled.

What's next: NASA's plans for Artemis may change significantly in the coming months to make sure the agency meets its deadline.

  • "I have no quarrel with those who say this is going to be incredibly hard. ... My job is to prove them all wrong," Doug Loverro, NASA's new head of human spaceflight, told Axios.
  • Loverro is reviewing the agency's current plan and is expected to release his conclusions in the coming weeks.

Go deeper: NASA's moonshot whiplash

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