In February 2017, leaked internal documents, prepared by the presidential transition team assigned to NASA, suggested the president set the country on a path to return Americans to the moon, or at least to orbit, by as early as 2020. Rumors of a shift in mission swirled for months.
In December of that year, the rumors became policy. President Trump signed a directive that called for a return to the moon, carried out by the U.S. government with help from private-sector companies.“It marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use,” the president said. “This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints—we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond.”
This year, the Trump administration presented some specifics to these moon-focused exploration ambitions. In the president’s budget proposal for the fiscal year 2019, released in February, the administration renamed an Obama-era proposal for a platform in low-Earth orbit that astronauts would use as way station on the way to Mars. The Deep Space Gateway would be called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, and the administration wants it to be ready for human habitation by 2023.
Last month, Wilbur Ross, the Commerce secretary, said the moon will become “a type of gas station,” a pit stop for rocket ships to refuel before hurtling deeper into space, “a lot sooner” than in the next decade.
A moon-first policy has not meant that all moon-focused programs at NASA are safe. In April, the agency canceled its only planned robotic mission to the surface of the moon. The Resource Prospector, a small rover nearly a decade in development, was supposed to look for and dig up material from the moon’s poles, where previous missions have shown water ice exists. The decision to scrap the project likely pre-dated Bridenstine, but as the new face of NASA, he had to answer for it. A group of lunar scientists, engineers, and others in the field sent Bridenstine a letter protesting the cancellation. “We’re committed to lunar exploration,” Bridenstine tweeted in response. “Resource Prospector instruments will go forward in an expanded lunar surface campaign. More landers. More science. More exploration. More prospectors. More commercial partners. Ad astra!” To the stars, but to the moon first, and with less in-house technology.
The Mars bumper stickers came up at Wednesday’s roundtable with Bridenstine. On Capitol Hill, the stickers come from Ed Perlmutter, a Democratic congressman from Colorado who was, just six weeks ago, Bridenstine’s colleague. Perlmutter’s staff designed the stickers themselves, his office once told me, and the congressman always carries a few with him to hand out “to whoever shows the slightest interest,” his spokesperson said. Perlmutter picked 2033 because, in that year, the orbits of Earth and Mars will bring the planets close enough for a fairly quick journey between them, about a year-and-a-half round-trip, instead of two or three years.
A reporter asked Bridenstine whether the administrator could say, once and for all, whether Perlmutter’s goal is attainable or unrealistic.
“I think it’s a great target—and I’ll leave it at that,” Bridenstine said with a smile. “But if I can make Ed Perlmutter happy, that’s my goal. And you can put in the story that I love Ed Perlmutter.”