I didn’t detect overwhelming excitement in the media when the White House rolled out its new December 11 Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD-1) which called for a human return to the Moon exactly 45 years to the day after American pioneers left their last footprints and flagpoles there. The ceremony talking points also vaguely proposed a future footprint and flagpole mission to Mars.
These announcements certainly weren’t greeted with the same tumult as one issued five and one-half decades ago when President John F. Kennedy boldly committed to send an American to the Moon and safely back before the end of that first decade.
We did this, and even better — putting four of our citizens on the lunar surface and returning them by 1969, plus delivered two more into lunar orbit who returned with them. Within three more years, eight others had walked on the Moon on successful round-trip voyages, along with four more orbital companions.
Some of those same Apollo astronauts, and many daring predecessors, literally blazed that pathway. They flew on two suborbital and four Earth-orbital Mercury launches, nine Earth-orbital Gemini flights, two Earth-orbital Apollo tests, and two lunar-orbital tests that made those lunar surface landings possible.
There was a lot of national concern and identity riding on those Cold War achievements. America’s psyche had been badly jolted on October 4, 1957, when a tiny Soviet satellite chirped alarming evidence of technological superiority. Then, three and one-half years later, a young cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin leant his human face to a new extraterrestrial space era that threatened to leave the U.S. behind even further.
It’s very unlikely a coincidence that this occurred just weeks before Kennedy’s commitment rallied a powerful response. Still, maybe some key conditions aren’t entirely so different now after all.
We remain in multi-front geo-military and economic disputes with Russia. At the same time, we must now rely upon them to shuttle our astronauts to and from the International Space Station, a facility that America has provided the bulk of the money to build and operate.
Russia’s space transportation monopoly hasn’t come cheap. Their charges to us have ballooned from about $22 million per seat in 2008, rising to a projected $81 million ticket shock next year — a 372% increase over 10 years.
Simply put, America has become lost in space with no clear destinations, plans, resolve, or public confidence. Few today, including any at NASA, can confidently articulate where our national programs are going. The answer always awaits a next round of directives following each uncertain presidential election outcome.
Going back to the Moon with humans only makes sense provided that it truly leads beyond where we were a half-century ago. As broadly outlined in NASA’s “Deep Space Gateway” proposal, doing so will be essential to develop and demonstrate much-needed systems and human capabilities for a far more complex, demanding, and purposeful human destination — Mars.
A major lunar attraction is surface water which can potentially be harvested from ice crystals, split into spacecraft propellant, and ultimately transferred to create orbital fuel depots. NASA’s upcoming robotic Resource Prospector mission could obtain the first ground truth measurements for the utilization of water ice at lunar poles in early 2020s.
Large investments required for a Moon return are only warranted as carefully integrated parts of a much broader initiative which serves to enable rather than to delay progress on a committed and well-defined Mars development trajectory.
NASA’s latest authorization, which was signed into law last March, specifically directs the agency to perform an independent assessment of the feasibility of a human mission to Mars in 2033. The bill also endorses a “stepping stone approach with missions to intermediate destinations in sustainable steps,” along with instructions to develop an “initial exploration roadmap.”
The new SPD-1 agenda recommended by a reinstituted National Space Council chaired by Vice President Mike Pence appropriately terminates NASA’s previous plan to send humans to an asteroid. Instead, it calls for the NASA administrator to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.”
President Trump characterized the policy as marking a first step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for long-term exploration and use.
I sincerely hope that in doing so, we advance many stepping stones farther to prioritize Mars as the primary destination — not just one of those “eventual” tourist pit stops.
My upcoming book, Beyond Footprints and Flagpoles, co-authored with Apollo 11, Gemini 12 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, explains why and how this can happen.