WASHINGTON — The White House has gone heavy on the lofty rhetoric, calling its plan to return humans to the lunar surface the “challenge of our time.” It’s set a Kennedyesque timeline to pull off the feat — five years — coupled with a dash of novelty: this time a woman would leave boot prints in the moon’s dusty soil.
The endeavor even has marquee branding to match that goal — Artemis, in Greek mythology the twin sister of Apollo, an unsubtle sign that NASA is attempting not only to reach the lunar surface but recall its glory days.
But now, as NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the agency is scrambling to meet the White House’s accelerated schedule and is facing one of the biggest tests since it fulfilled President’s Kennedy’s pledge at the dawn of the Space Age to go to the moon.
For decades, one White House after another tried and failed to create an Apollo-like program and reinvigorate an agency that has not been able to return people to the moon since 1972 -and since the space shuttle was retired eight years ago, has not been able to fly astronauts anywhere.
The Trump administration, however, has made space a priority. It reconstituted the National Space Council, which had been dormant for nearly 25 years. It’s pushing for a Space Force, a new branch of the military. Vice President Mike Pence has given several high-profile speeches on space, including one in March in which he urged NASA to accelerate its efforts to reach the moon by 2024, instead of 2028, its previous plan.
At the Space Council’s first meeting, in late 2017, Pence lamented what he called the “abdication of leadership in space” by previous administrations and the fact that “the United States has not sent an American astronaut beyond low-Earth orbit in 45 years. Across the board, our space program has suffered from apathy and neglect.”
He vowed “to never again let America fall behind in the race for space.”
Given the high-level focus, many think that this is the best shot NASA has had in years to pull off a moon mission. But NASA faces a series of obstacles — both technical and political — that threaten to make Artemis another in a string of lofty goals that never came to fruition.
The question NASA now faces is not just whether it can meet that ambitious timeline, but whether it can get humans there again, ever. Artemis, then, isn’t just a race to the moon but a test of whether NASA still has the sort of DNA for such ambitious human exploration missions.
“The future of NASA is at stake,” Mark Sirangelo, who was helping lead the Artemis effort before resigning after less than two months, said in an interview. “If NASA doesn’t do the big, bold things, then what does it do?”
The hurdles NASA faces are many and complicated.
The rocket it plans to use to get astronauts to the moon has yet to fly, is years behind schedule and it’s unclear when it will be ready. NASA doesn’t have a lunar lander to get astronauts to the surface, or spacesuits for them to wear once they get there. And the amended budget request for next year of $1.6 billion is a drop in the bucket for the mission’s estimated cost of $20 to $30 billion, which would require between $4 and $6 billion additionally a year.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a Senate hearing this week that the failure of the White House and Congress to reach a budget deal would be “devastating” to the program since it would prevent the agency from investing in the new hardware needed to meet the 2024 goal.
There’s also been upheaval within the top levels of the agency’s exploration division. Last month, Sirangelo, a longtime space industry executive, resigned after less than two months. NASA had wanted to reorganize to create a “Moon to Mars Mission Directorate” that Sirangelo would have led, but Congress blocked it.
Last week, Bridenstine abruptly ousted William Gerstenmaier, the head of the agency’s human exploration division, saying he and others had grown tired of leaders who overpromised but didn’t deliver.
Gerstenmaier had served at the agency for 42 years and had become an institution in his own right. Bridenstine said he is searching across the country for a top manager to take over. But it’s unclear when the position will be filled, the clock is ticking, and Congress is growing restless.
“Where is the leadership within the organization to deliver on this goal?” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, the ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, asked during a hearing.
She and other members also had questions about Artemis’ price tag. “It’s difficult for us to approve the mission if we don’t know what the ultimate cost will be to the taxpayers,” she said.
Bridenstine said the answer to that wouldn’t come til early next year, when NASA lays out the entire multiyear cost of the program in its budget request.
U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma, the chair of the House space subcommittee, said in an interview her concern was that as NASA rushes to meet the White House goal it doesn’t compromise safety. “We don’t want schedule pressure to force NASA to take undue risks,” she said.
In the meantime, a political question hangs over the program: in the age of Trump, with a presidential election looming, can the nation rally around anything, let alone a risky escapade to a lifeless rock 250,000 miles away that is certain to cost billions, and maybe lives, and doesn’t poll well?
For all the recent grandiose talk about returning to the moon, the Trump administration’s space plans unfolded very slowly at first.
The White House didn’t nominate Bridenstine to be NASA administrator until September 2017, eight months after Trump’s inauguration. He wasn’t confirmed until the following April, meaning the agency had been left with an acting director for the longest period in its history.
Initially, Bridenstine and NASA officials crafted a plan to return to the moon, a reversal from the Obama administration, which was focused on getting to an asteroid and eventually to Mars. When it came to the moon, NASA had “been there before,” Obama said in 2010.
But under Trump, NASA’s charge isn’t just to get to the moon, but to go there to stay. To build a permanent presence on and around the moon and use that as a steppingstone to explore further and reach destinations such as Mars.
But unlike the Apollo missions, where astronauts left flags and footprints and then just left, NASA intends to build an outpost in orbit around the moon. Called Gateway, it would be outfitted with a propulsion element that would allow it to maneuver, a habitat for astronauts to live, and a lander and ascent vehicle that would take them to the lunar surface and back.
And while getting to the moon may be a priority for the White House, it’s not for the country, which remains fractured along political, cultural and class lines. While Apollo was able to transcend those in the 1960s, it’s not clear Artemis will be able to now.
Testifying at a recent Congressional hearing, Gene Kranz, the legendary NASA flight director for Apollo 11, said that President Kennedy’s call for a lunar mission “was the impetus, but there was a national unity that assured our success. I believe that today in our country unity is necessary for great effort and is lacking within our country, our government, and within the space industry.”
It’s fallen to Bridenstine to sell the program to the nation and to Congress. But first he had to sell it to his own employees, many of whom were surprised by the Vice President’s announcement.
During a town hall he looked forward to the day “50 years from now when people are celebrating the Artemis program, 50 years from now when people are celebrating the new agenda to go to the moon with the next man and the first woman, people are going to say, ‘Look at how this has transformed and elevated the human condition.'”
But he’s got a long way to go.
During a recent hearing of a Senate subcommittee on aviation and space, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., admitted she hadn’t heard of the Artemis program until very recently.
“People don’t know about this,” she said. “This is a problem, I think.”