NASA Is Rushing to the Moon

In the agency’s most ambitious dreams, it will be testing moon-landing systems within the next five years.

The American flag stands upright on the surface of the moon.
Johnson Space Center / NASA

Since 1969, 12 men have walked on the moon’s surface, leaving boot prints in the fine slate dust. In 1972, as the crew of the last lunar mission flew home, President Richard Nixon predicted, “This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon.” Several presidents since have promised to put American astronauts on the moon again, someday, and the desire to return has not faded.

Weeks after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, leaked memos revealed that the president’s advisers had contemplated a moon return as early as 2020. By late 2017, federal officials directed NASA to focus on a voyage to the moon—not to plant another flag, but to build a lasting presence, aimed at launching missions deeper into space. And in the past year, the administration’s aspirations have crystallized into a specific plan.

There are no Cold War tensions to push Americans to the moon in this century. But there is a rush. The Trump administration has moon fever, and with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just around the corner, NASA is in a hurry.

The Trump administration wants to put humans on the moon by 2028. Unlike the Apollo program, this won’t be an in-house effort. NASA has asked American aerospace companies to submit designs for transportation systems that could be launched and tested, without a crew, as early as 2024. Applications are due in late March, and the winners stand to receive contracts worth from $300,000 to $9 million. Potential participants include longtime NASA contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman; the quirky-billionaire-owned SpaceX and Blue Origin; and smaller, more obscure companies.

“We care about speed,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s science division, said recently. “We want to start taking shots on goal. We do not expect that every one of those launches, every one of those landings, will be successful.”

Why the urgency? One interpretation: Trump is more than halfway into his first term, and his administration is ready to put months of planning into motion. Another: Trump is more than halfway into his first term, and the administration still has little to show for itself, especially as the Apollo anniversary approaches. Officials say they could sign the first contracts as soon as July, just in time for the occasion.

The administration’s vision calls for the construction of a lunar outpost—the equivalent of a little International Space Station, orbiting the moon. Like the ISS, the outpost would be assembled in orbit, piece by piece, module by module. From there, astronauts would travel to and from the lunar surface. NASA’s latest call for designs includes vehicles to move astronauts from the station, down to the lunar surface, and back up. Some of the transportation elements could be refueled and reused.

The companies competing for these contracts will have to build this complex infrastructure in eight years with a fraction of the budget available during the Apollo era. At the Apollo program’s peak, NASA’s budget accounted for more than 4 percent of federal spending. Now it’s less than half a percent. Even with a ballooning federal budget, that still works out to less than half the spending power that NASA had in the 1960s.

There is also another challenge to the administration’s ambitious goals: The rocket that would facilitate access to this floating station is still under construction. So is the capsule that would hold the crew on its journey there. Both programs are running behind schedule and growing more expensive. Last fall, a report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General predicted that the rocket-and-capsule combo won’t be ready for its first test flight, in mid-2020, unless it receives an additional $1.2 billion.

In the midst of all that, NASA also hopes to land robotic missions on the moon. “For us, if we had any wish, I would like to fly this calendar year,” Zurbuchen said, in another show of urgency. The agency picked nine American companies to compete over contracts for the missions last year, and unveiled the payloads—a dozen scientific instruments—this week. It hasn’t mentioned who would fly these missions to the moon. The only systems that would be available by Zurbuchen’s dream deadline are in the private sector, not at NASA.

All together, this is a very tall order. As with most space-exploration ambitions, the timelines for the Trump administration’s lunar plans should be taken with a big grain of moon dust. The U.S. is unmatched when it comes to deep-space exploration—the country has left the solar system twice with the Voyager spacecraft, and has landed on Mars eight times—but its lunar glory days are far behind it. Since the last moonwalkers returned to Earth, NASA hasn’t landed anything on the surface. On top of that, the agency can’t launch its astronauts to the ISS from U.S. soil, and will continue to buy seats for them on Russia’s launch system until SpaceX and Boeing, American companies, can take over the job, a scenario that’s still at least a year away.

Realistic or not, the Trump administration’s plans also elide another major threat to any space policy: electoral politics. If the president has to leave office after 2020, his administration’s moon shot might go with him. New presidents come in with their own policies, and entire programs end up on the chopping block the morning after Election Day. Barack Obama erased George W. Bush’s hopes for a mission to the moon, and Donald Trump upended Obama’s directive for a trip to Mars. If the 2020 election produces a president with a different vision, NASA would, once again, readjust, and the effort to etch fresh boot prints on the moon would remain in the blueprints.

During the Cold War, the race to space was restricted to just two major players—the United States and the USSR. But the new race to the moon coincides with the ambitions of a growing group of spacefaring nations, as well as private companies. Last month, China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, a world first. The space agencies of China, Russia, and India seek to land their astronauts on the moon in the next decade or two. In the private sector, business is booming. Last week, SpaceX launched an Israeli lander bound for the moon. If successful, the lander will become the first privately funded spacecraft to touch down on the surface of another world.

Many commercial companies are working on lunar missions of their own, from robotic rovers to tourist spaceships. SpaceX is developing a launch system designed “to reach the moon as fast as possible,” according to the company’s founder, Elon Musk. The same company hired to launch NASA astronauts to the ISS could leapfrog the agency on its way to the moon. With all the competition, it’s no wonder NASA wants to—as Zurbuchen put it—“fly faster.”