President signs directive for return to the Moon

Real issue is whether Congress will sufficiently fund the effort.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Dec 13, 2017
With Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmidt standing next to him, President Donald Trump signed a space policy directive committing to return American astronauts to the Moon as a first step to landing humans on Mars.

Titled "Space Policy Directive 1," the document was signed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of Apollo 17 in December 1972, the last time anyone has walked on the Moon or even ventured beyond low-Earth orbit.

"This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint; we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond," Trump stated.

While many questions remain about how to safely send astronauts to Mars, the Trump administration has adopted the position of using the Moon as a stepping stone to that goal, as outlined by Vice President Mike Pence at the National Space Council meeting two months ago.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine R-Okla, Trump's choice for NASA Administrator, supports the Moon-first approach.

Obtaining sufficient funding for a return to the Moon has long been a major obstacle to this goal. President George W. Bush sought to establish a lunar base in order to maintain a long-term presence there, but in 2009, a blue-ribbon committee determined the project would require several billion dollars in additional funding.

President Barack Obama sought to send astronauts further into space by skipping the Moon and landing them on an asteroid.

When that proved too expensive, the plan was changed to the Asteroid Return Mission, which would have involved a robotic spacecraft breaking off part of an asteroid and transporting it to lunar orbit, where astronauts would then land.

The idea never gained popularity in Congress or the space community, and the project was canceled earlier this year.

NASA is now pursuing development of the Deep Space Gateway, a successor to the International Space Station (ISS) that the agency hopes to place in lunar orbit.

Since retiring the space shuttle program in 2011, the US has not had a vehicle to transport astronauts to the ISS and has had to rely on Russia for the service.

Through its Commercial CrewProgram, NASA hopes to begin sending astronauts to and from the ISS via private space vehicles as soon as next year.

The space agency is developing the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule, a new heavy rocket and deep space capsule that should be capable of eventually sending humans to Mars.

Private companies, such as Boeing and SpaceX, have contracts with NASA to transport astronauts to the ISS, and are also developing their own launch vehicles and space transportation systems.

Whether Trump's goal is achieved depends largely on the willingness of Congress to fund it.

"Now, the question is whether the White House will propose and the Congress appropriate the funds needed to turn the words into reality," said The George Washington University space historian John Logsdon.

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