When new budgets are issued, our first instinct is to see how much we were allocated and then moan about why it isn’t enough. It’s no different with the new NASA budget, and so the predictable responses have started. Budgets are statements of intent and philosophy by administrations. They are changed and modified by Congress during the appropriations process, one that involves a good deal of give and take on both sides. In this case, NASA’s new budget affirms the White House’s intent to return to the Moon, specifically by creating a new program of lunar robotic missions in preparation for permanent human return.
Details are sparse, largely because NASA has no permanent Administrator at the moment and thus, no senior management team to devise an architecture for lunar return. The ridiculous delay in confirming Jim Bridenstine as the new Administrator greatly hinders the agency’s ability to prepare and present a coherent, logical rationale with their budget proposal. The current document is largely a placeholder, designed to indicate general intent rather than advocate any specific implementation. So any talk about the Administration not moving fast enough getting us back to the Moon is moot. We’ve wasted a lot of time and money starting lunar programs, only to have them killed before they could get started. This administration appears willing to try and get it right this time.
The biggest news seems to be President Trump’s desire to end U.S. financial support for the operation and use of the International Space Station by 2025. But rather than simply “pulling the plug” on the program as President Obama did to Project Constellation in 2010, the new plan calls for a “seamless transition” to commercial and/or international operation of the ISS by that date. Many are skeptical of the expression of such intent, but at least this issue has been given some serious thought.
The International Space Station (ISS/Station) – continuously operated and inhabited since November 2000 – was not intended to be an endless NASA program. Originally, a space station in low Earth orbit (LEO) was conceived as a stepping-stone to destinations in space beyond LEO. The original von Braun architecture was shuttle-station-Moon tug-Mars mission, done in that order. The logic of the von Braun plan was that each step into space enabled the next one. It was further envisioned that once emplaced, no asset would be abandoned, although left unanswered was exactly what entity would be financially responsible for an operational waypoint.
That stepping-stone concept was largely abandoned during the 1993 re-design of the ISS, when the station was planned for a 51.6° inclination orbit to accommodate launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Russian spaceport. Due to the difficulty of conducting cislunar voyages from this orbit, plans for a reusable space tug (orbital transfer vehicle) to be based at Station were dropped. The focus shifted from space transportation and exploration to materials science and the study of microgravity and human health in space. The use of Station as a transportation node for deep space missions was eliminated, effectively ending the manned “National Space Transportation System.” Thus, ISS became not a stepping-stone, but an end-point destination and it has served that role for the last 20 years. From that perspective alone, designation of the Moon as the next step is long overdue.
Beyond these considerations, commercialization of the ISS is the logical next step after initiation of the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs. When the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was unveiled in 2004, some quarters immediately began planning an “exit strategy” for the proposed lunar base. So why is it now such a stretch to plan an exit strategy for the ISS? We have learned much about operations, assembly and maintenance of large systems and spacecraft, and about human health in microgravity. So in that sense, ISS has served some of its role as an exploration “stepping-stone.” We have demonstrated what humans and machines in space can do, and now it’s time to pass this phase on to commercial interests and focus on the logical, constructive next step – the Moon.
For space science, the new budget both giveth and taketh. In contrast to some hysteria, Earth science has not been decimated – continued mission development, launch and operations are supported to the tune of $1.78 billion. Four missions are terminated: three climate science missions in development and one operational spacecraft (DSCOVR). The latter has operated for the last three years and has already met its core mission goals. There has been much gnashing of teeth about the proposed termination of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the next generation space telescope. The astrophysics community must accept some responsibility for that, as the James Webb Space Telescope, originally to cost a little less than $2 billion and launch by 2011, now costs over $10 billion (and counting) and a has a launch scheduled for mid-2019, set a poor example of technical and managerial oversight. Lest you think that I unfairly pick on other sciences here, note that my field (planetary science) has its own white whale in the form of the Mars Sample Return (MSR), a mission whose cost would most certainly exceed $10 billion. The desirement of more than 30 years of studies, MSR is barely possible technically and has held questionable scientific value since the late 1980s, when we recognized that certain meteorites come from Mars. Still, the MSR is provided study money in the new budget.
Another criticism of the new budget is the vague timeline for lunar return. Here we must recall how the now cancelled Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), proposed by the last administration as a substitute for lunar return, not only flew in the face of bipartisan Congressional support for a sustained lunar return, but also consumed valuable time and money, thus delaying plans for a sustained space transportation system using the Moon’s resources. So any suggestion that we’re not moving back to the Moon fast enough with this budget is laughably inappropriate.
Possibly the most serious issue in terms of the new direction is the retention of the Deep Space Gateway (DSG), a program of questionable value for lunar return. This facility is a morphed version of ARM, designed to give the appearance of accomplishment on the “Journey to Mars”. With a need to give the new Orion spacecraft a destination it can reach, NASA plans to place the DSG in what is called a “rectilinear halo orbit” around the Moon. The DSG is thus both “in cislunar space” and “near the Moon,” with the current NASA management claiming that these properties mean that the DSG supports the Trump Administration’s goal of lunar return. In fact, both the location and configuration of the DSG make it irrelevant to that goal. The DSG orbit makes lunar surface access marginal and difficult – it is too far from the Moon, resulting in long transit times and large delta-v (energy) requirements to access the surface. The current strawman design for DSG is that of a “mini-me” ISS – a habitat module, a docking collar, and some solar arrays. We will learn nothing from this configuration that we do not already know from the ISS experience. So don’t blame new the budget for why we’re not “hurrying back” to the Moon.
That said, DSG could become a useful piece of a cislunar transportation infrastructure if it were moved closer to the Moon (a few hundred km high polar orbit). Placed there, it could serve as a transportation hub for a reusable lunar lander and the cislunar crew transport. Ultimately, it could become a lunar orbital propellant depot, with the ability to accept and distribute lunar products. Such a facility would become part of the permanent transportation infrastructure of cislunar space and play its important role in stimulating commercial space development
The new budget also proposes to eliminate NASA’s Office of Education and move that money to exploration efforts. Though widely criticized, I think this is actually a good move. NASA has spent untold millions for “education” over the years, although these efforts have not resulted in any noticeable increase in public support for space. And there are more unemployed aerospace engineers and scientists now than there are actually working in the field. The idea that NASA must have an Education Office to create the next generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) students is ludicrous – the biggest influx of new technical people inspired by space exploration came during Apollo, when the agency’s outreach efforts were minimal and primitive in the extreme but we were flying to the Moon. I was one of those students and I didn’t need a NASA education program to get me excited about science and space. To inspire the next generation of STEM workers, we need to actually do inspiring things in human space exploration – real and ongoing missions that show there are actual roles and careers in space for their generation.
The good news is that the administration’s budget emphasizes the Moon as the goal. With limited funds in our national purse for discretionary spending, the amount allotted to NASA for space exploration shows this administration favors a strong national manned space program. We can always wish for more money. Perhaps now is the opportune time for NASA leadership to show that it can budget $20 billion a year into an incremental and sustainable return to the Moon. With a return to the Moon, we can test the viability of lunar resources, science will flourish (e.g., astronomers will be able to see deeply back into time, sheltered from Earth’s noise on the Moon’s far side), and we will create a permanent spacefaring system, thereby, finally bringing the Moon and cislunar space into our economic sphere. It isn’t about “hurrying” somewhere, or the “size” of budgets, but seizing the opportunity to start and remain on a path that sees us reclaim our leadership role in space exploration and space development.