Donald Trump wants to go to the moon. Since being elected president, both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have offered vague but repeated hints that the administration was interested in sending American astronauts back to it, and finally, at the inaugural meeting of the newly resurrected National Space Council on Oct. 5, they made this desire explicit. In front of a backdrop of the iconic Space Shuttle Discovery at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Pence unveiled a brand new objective for U.S. space policy:
We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond. The moon will be a stepping-stone, a training ground, a venue to strengthen our commercial and international partnerships as we refocus America’s space program toward human space exploration.
For such a bombshell declaration, very few concrete details resulted from the council’s first meeting. You can’t say the devil is in the details, because there are no details. As Casey Dreier, the director of space policy at the Planetary Society, the nonprofit dedicated to advancing space exploration and research, put it: “At this point, I just have more questions than opinions, because there’s not much to form an opinion off of. My biggest question is, to what end are we going to the moon? What is the purpose?”
There’s no clear answer to that. Despite Pence’s stepping-stone comment, going back to the moon does very little to help strengthen the human journey to Mars and worlds beyond. It’s doubtful the government could properly fund such a venture. All of Trump and Pence’s moon talk may sound exciting, but they are sorely mistaken if they believe returning to the moon is easy.
To be fair, NASA already has plans to go to the moon—just not to land on it. Since 2012, the agency has been planning a series of manned missions to lunar orbit throughout the 2020s, with the first to launch (optimistically) in June 2022. If NASA suddenly decided it wanted to send those astronauts to the moon’s surface, it would need to build a lander of some sorts. They obviously know how to do that. As John Logsdon, the founder and director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, says, a manned return to the moon is “totally feasible with even just a modest budget increase.”
Landing on the moon, however, is just step one. What Pence announced is the establishment of a moon base, and the cost of maintaining and operating that would be astronomical. It costs about $3 to 4 billion a year for NASA to keep the International Space Station running safely and normally. That figure, 20 percent of the agency’s annual budget, prevents NASA from doing moon missions, or anything else, on a whim. Powering, resupplying, maintaining, and keeping a moon base going would be extremely expensive.
And for what? Is a moon base even necessary if we want to go to Mars? That’s one argument being pushed by many backers of Trump’s space vision. True, the moon’s position is a useful stopping point en route to Mars, and that’s why NASA is angling to develop the Deep Space Gateway, a crewed space station deployed between the Earth and the moon that’s supposed to be a staging point for deep space missions. But this structure is meant to exist in space. Maintaining transportation infrastructure on the moon is costly and counterintuitive. “Money spent on a moon base is money you’re not spending on going to Mars,” says Dreier.
Dreier emphasizes there’s no inherently right or wrong destination for space travel. We’ve yet to explore the far side of the moon, or its poles, which might possess ice reserves, which could provide a useable source of water. Other valuable resources might be lurking under the surface, waiting to be mined. Scientists and engineers could definitely use the low gravity as a testing ground for learning how to live and work on a different celestial body. But Dreier is adamant that landing on the lunar surface is an unnecessary detour if the journey’s end is supposed to Mars. If you’re trying to drive to New York City from Los Angeles as soon as possible, you wouldn’t stop to build a home in Houston.
It’s possible to defend the idea that we ought to be exploring the moon’s resources, but that’s why it’s all the more aggravating to see Pence and the NSC offer a rudderless statement asserting the U.S. ought to return to the moon with barely any explanation for why we should go there. The best indication for how a return to the moon might unfold will come in February, when the White House releases its 2019 NASA budget proposal. Maybe they’ll pony up the money, and the reasoning. But any excitement over the fact that they’re finally investing in science is extinguished by the realization that there’s probably just one reason they’re willing to do it: It’s a crass maneuver designed to squeeze some sort of short-term good will out of all the work and money poured into the Mars program this decade.