Will NASA Return to the Moon by 2020?

There’s more on the inside battle at NASA to reshape American space policy from POLITICO.

The Trump administration is considering a bold and controversial vision for the U.S. space program that calls for a “rapid and affordable” return to the moon by 2020, the construction of privately operated space stations and the redirection of NASA’s mission to “the large-scale economic development of space,” according to internal documents obtained by POLITICO.

The proposed strategy, whose potential for igniting a new industry appeals to Trump’s business background and job-creation pledges, is influencing the White House’s search for leaders to run the space agency. And it is setting off a struggle for supremacy between traditional aerospace contractors and the tech billionaires who have put big money into private space ventures.

“It is a big fight,” said former Republican Rep. Robert Walker of Pennsylvania, who drafted the Trump campaign’s space policy and remains involved in the deliberations. “There are billions of dollars at stake. It has come to a head now when it has become clear to the space community that the real innovative work is being done outside of NASA.”

The early indications are that private rocket firms like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and their supporters have a clear upper hand in what Trump’s transition advisers portrayed as a race between “Old Space” and “New Space,” according to emails among key players inside the administration. Trump has met with Bezos and Musk, while tech investor Peter Thiel, a close confidant, has lobbied the president to look at using NASA to help grow the private space industry.

A couple of observation on this:

  • The 2020 date is clearly an attempt to do something particularly spectacular in time for Donald Trump’s re-election bid. What better way to demonstrate that Trump has made America great again than sending humans back to the moon?
  • What other benefits that would have I don’t know. The United States is clearly not a position to land astronauts on the surface by 2020, unless someone has been secretly building a lunar lander. Maybe a crash program could build one in time, but I have serious doubts about the feasibility of that given the time frame.
  • So, the flight would be limited to do a free return around the moon (ala, Apollo 13) or orbiting the moon and coming home (ala, Apollo 8).  Any detailed exploration of the surface with astronauts would have to wait.  So, would it be more like a stunt done in time for the election whose follow up would be delayed? Or would it serve to spur on efforts?
  • The establishment of a space station in lunar orbit or cislunar space might be possible, but it would be a logistical and financial headache for a space agency which is already stretched trying to support a single station in Earth orbit.
  • First things first. We’re going to be lucky if we have SpaceX and Boeing taking astronauts to ISS on a commercial basis by 2019. Let’s them demonstrate that capability before moving on.
  • NASA needs to incorporate the lessons of commercial crew and cargo into any plans to do the moon commercially. Both programs ended up taking far longer than planned. The crew effort should be seriously reviewed given the delays and technical issues that have cropped up.