The president wants NASA back on the moon by 2024—a risky and unrealistic request

We'll need more money, more time, or both.
View of the full moon over the African continent Nico Smit

In December 2017, Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, giving NASA instructions to return humans to the moon using projects already underway as well as private sector partners. Not an easy task, sure, but doable with the proper amount of time, money, and willpower. NASA’s been pretty ambiguous about when it could achieve this goal, but it recently gave itself a target of 2028.

But the Trump administration has always hinted to NASA in that it hoped to see this happen sooner, and on Tuesday, the White House made this explicit. At the fifth meeting of the National Space Council, and nearly 50 years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, Vice President Mike Pence said the 2028 deadline was “just not good enough.” The administration is now directing NASA to land astronauts on the south pole of the moon by 2024—four years earlier than anticipated, and “by any means necessary.”

“It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Pence told the audience at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “I call on NASA to adopt new policies and embrace a new mindset,” Pence said.

Pence’s speech rang equal parts bold and hallow, lacking specifics on how NASA would abide by an accelerated timetable. “I think when you make statements like that, you’re obliged to also provide the funding for it,” said George Abbey, the former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, currently a fellow at the Baker Institute of Rice University. “And I don’t think there’s any funding that’s been provided. Words are easy to say, but the reality is that the program’s going to cost money. If it’s going to be done right, it’s got to be funded the right way. There isn’t any plan right now or any architecture that takes you to the moon with cost estimates that are really meaningful. It’s not reality.”

Quoting the late Mercury Seven astronaut Gus Grissom, Abbey says: “There’s no Buck Rogers without any bucks.”

The 2020 budget proposal the White House has submitted to Congress actually cuts NASA’s budget a bit, including the Space Launch System and Orion programs meant to help NASA’s human exploration efforts in deep space. The SLS in particular would take a $17.4 percent reduction in funds should Congress pass the budget proposal. “I don’t think you’re going to go to the moon with those kind of cuts,” says Abbey.

A lot hinges on the current status of SLS, which has been the subject of intense debate in the last month or so. When it’s finished, it will be the biggest rocket ever known to humankind, but its development has been plagued by constant delays, with an inaugural launch of 2017 pushed back to 2020 (and now likely to 2021).

Pence’s speech included what many interpreted as a swipe against Boeing, which has faced intense criticism for its delays in developing the core of the SLS rocket. “If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will,” he said.

But the Vice President didn’t stop there: “If commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the Moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be.” Just earlier this month, NASA administrator first pitched the idea that the agency may elect to use a commercial rocket instead to send the Orion vehicle on a trip around the moon next year. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing their own heavy lift rockets. The former’s Falcon Heavy (successfully launched a year ago) and latter’s Blue Origin’s New Glenn are also geared toward reusability, which would not only keep costs down but perhaps push reusable architecture for spaceflight even further. If they prove viable and successful, they may seal SLS’s fate.

Still, even if NASA puts more funds toward the SLS, or chooses to go with a private company, safety remains a huge concern on an accelerated timetable. SLS can only really be launched once a year, so it may not get the type of extensive safety testing expected from a vehicle that’s taking humans into space. Falcon Heavy is a brand new rocket (from a company with a sordid history of accidents), and New Glenn has never even launched.

“Technically, is it possible to do this? Yeah, probably,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert based at the University of Central Florida. “But there’s going to be a behind-the-scenes concern about cutting corners that could lead to a disaster… People forget that during Apollo, we cut a lot of corners, and then that resulted in the 1967 Apollo 1 pad fire.” That accident killed three astronauts.

What makes 2024 so much better than 2028? Perhaps nothing. Abbey suspects it might be that the administration wants to push a deadline in which it might still be in office to celebrate the achievement. Handberg believes it might be spurred by a perception that a new space race is ramping up, this time between the United States and China. He believes people were rattled by the successful landing of Chiang’e-4 on the far side of the moon. “This had a triggering effect that I think is disproportionate from what it represents,” Handberg says.

Handberg also wonders what exactly the administration hopes to achieve by going to the moon at all. There are certainly many potential benefits, and the biggest argument has always been that establishing a bigger presence on the moon will make it easier to go to Mars. But there are very few specifics that outline what that would even look like. Are we going to begin building a moon base? Pence noted in his speech that the water ice located in the lunar south pole has enormous potential value, but how exactly are we going to mine and harvest it? Many believe helium-3 could be an invaluable resource to mine for generating power with fusion reactors, but we’ve been waiting for fusion reactors since the middle of the 20th century.

If NASA were to pony up the money that helps make a 2024 deadline feasible, it might come at the cost of other important programs. The physicist James Van Allen famously lamented what he called the “slaughter of the innocent”—the loss of vital space science work due to NASA’s focus on building the Space Shuttle. And Handberg doesn’t think there’s a political leader who’s going to champion space science and protect that work from budget cuts.

“What you see is a kind of attempt to recapture the glamour and momentum embodied in the Apollo program,” Handberg says. Apollo started for political reasons, when President Kennedy wanted the U.S. to catch up to and surpass the Soviets in space. But, “once the political goal was achieved—demonstrating American excellence—it ended.” Handberg believes the current obsession with going to the moon “contains the kernels for being the same kind of arrangement,” where interest will evaporate after some sufficiently grand achievement is unlocked.