NASA made history and created a lasting reputation for technology development by landing Americans on the moon 50 years ago. The last astronauts to visit the moon occurred three years later. We have been stuck in low earth orbit ever since.
That fact of leaving the moon and not going back does not mean we have not done some spectacular things in the 47 years that followed. NASA built a magnificent flying machine, the Space Shuttle, to go space and back. It used the Shuttle to build the world’s most fascinating engineering project, the International Space Station. It created a process for permanently keeping people in space and regularly resupplying them. And, most recently, it has introduced commercial launch companies into that resupply mission.
All of the above are remarkable achievements, but they are not the same as being on the moon. The Trump Administration has just announced it’s intent to go back to the moon within five years. It has created a national mission which in the words of President Trump and Vice President Pence will be accomplished “by any means necessary.”
From the President’s earliest days in office, it has been apparent that he wanted an aggressive space policy. His campaign had promised a policy that would lead to human exploration of the solar system within this century. He had committed to reinitiating the National Space Council headed by the Vice President to encourage and coordinate our space efforts. And he laid down a clear objective of American footprints on the moon during his two terms in office.
What was not observable in the government’s various space agencies was the sense of urgency about the mission the President envisioned. What can now be readily seen is that the Administration wants NASA to demonstrate real urgency about the prescribed mission.
At the National Space Council meeting at the Marshall Rocket and Missile Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Vice President Pence made the case for urgency. He described the new space race in which we are now engaged and made it exceeding clear that if NASA cannot do this mission successfully, the Administration will turn to others who can. He said, “Failure to achieve our goal to return a American astronaut to the moon in the next five years is not an option.”
The NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, got the message. He told the workforce at Marshall that he was prepared to seek other means to accomplish the Trump agenda if the programs of record could not accomplish the President’s goal. Hopefully the very talented and storied men and women of Marshall understood that this mission, like the Apollo era, will demand great effort, more risk and laser-like focus.
The reality is that there are commercial American companies who say they can meet the Trump schedule and will be viable alternatives if NASA cannot move fast enough. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX claim to have the capability to design and complete a moon landing with Americans on board by 2024 or perhaps earlier. The Administration wants to give NASA and the programs it has been developing a chance to compete, but the challenge for the agency professionals is not only to beat foreign competition for global superiority, but competition from American entrepreneurs who are very focused on going to the moon and beyond.
It is a new day in space. Change is hard. But the lethargy that too often characterizes government programs cannot be allowed to keep our nation from maintaining its premier position in space accomplishment. Government, like business, must learn to move at the speed of technology, not the speed of bureaucracy. This new day with a space policy focused on the future rather than on the accomplishments of the past will be this generation’s contribution to history.