With the retired space shuttle Discovery looking over his shoulder, Vice President Mike Pence kicked off the first meeting of the newly reconstituted National Space Council today by declaring Americans will return to the Moon. He also said Americans will establish a commercial presence in low-Earth orbit, and use the Moon as a training ground to prepare for missions to Mars.
The highly anticipated meeting took place at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington, D.C. The National Space Council is an advisory group tasked with streamlining and coordinating national space policy for civil, military and industry space programs. Its members include the leaders of multiple government agencies, including the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce, and NASA.
The event helped clarify some of the Trump administration's space policy intentions, but there are many details yet to be addressed. Space council members have 45 days to submit responses on today's meeting, and the real indicator of what happens next will come from next year's NASA budget request.
In short, there are many questions, and we'll need answers before we can truly understand this new policy. In the meantime, here are our initial reactions and analysis.
Returning to the Moon
The biggest news to come out of today's meeting was Pence's authoritative declaration that Americans will return to the lunar surface.
"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," Pence said.
This wasn't unexpected, considering prior statements by Pence, other administration officials, and the backgrounds of space council executive secretary Scott Pace, and NASA administrator nominee Jim Bridenstine.
Very few details were given on how a return to the lunar surface would work, or when it would occur. Pence did not say whether the Americans on the surface would be government or commercially-employed astronauts. And the agency's exploration goals already include a return to lunar space via the Deep Space Gateway, a small space station in lunar orbit, which would provide a test-bed for closed-loop life support, deep space maneuvering, and other technologies necessary for travel to Mars.
In a statement, NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said the agency has "highlighted a number of initiatives underway in this important area (cislunar space), including a study of an orbital gateway or outpost that could support a sustained cadence of robotic and human missions." That implies the Deep Space Gateway is still on the table, and could theoretically fit within the broad plans outlined by Pence.
The fate of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule have been a perennial point of discussion among space advocates, particularly during the transition to this new, business-friendly administration. Though it wasn't stated explicitly, today's discussions seemed to assume the continuation of SLS and Orion, at least for now. The programs have always had strong congressional support, and were intended to be destination-agnostic, both by design and congressional directive. NASA can thus shift its focus without a drastic restructuring of its major hardware programs.
In many ways, NASA never stopped its moon-focused human spaceflight program. The initial versions of SLS are essentially Moon-only rockets, requiring upgrades before lofting humans and hardware to Mars. Likewise, Orion can only sustain astronauts for a few weeks at a time without being attached to a supplemental habitat module. The rhetorical shift back to the lunar surface, then, is a full-circle moment for NASA's return-to-the-Moon Constellation program, which was canceled in 2010. Orion was, after all, originally Constellation's Moon capsule, and SLS can stand in for the Ares V heavy lifter.
The role of commercial space
The space council meeting panels were divided along typical "old space" and "new space" lines, with Lockheed, Boeing and Orbital ATK in the first group, and SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada in the second. Though the approaches to spaceflight between the two groups differ, both hope to capitalize on the country's new directive to focus on the Moon.
Will commercial and international partners be tasked with making the final leg of the trip to the surface? For ISS cargo and crew missions, NASA has engaged multiple commercial partners at a time in order to maintain competition and redundancy for critical programs. Does the administration intend to competitively award multiple contracts for lunar surface exploration? On what timescale?
If so, NASA's new human spaceflight program could essentially be a Constellation redux, with commercial launchers substituting for the Ares I, SLS for Ares V, and a COTS-like fixed-price competition for a lunar landing craft standing in for Altair, Constellation's never-funded lunar lander. This is speculation on our part, but such a balance could please space companies across the spectrum, as well as international partners.
Pence also said "the president has charged us with laying the foundation for America to maintain a constant, commercial, human presence in low-Earth orbit." How would this be beneficial to NASA, which is now tasked with promoting human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit? How long should NASA maintain a presence aboard the ISS, which will have been operating for 25 years in 2024, its current expiration date? Should NASA use its limited funds to to subsidize private space activities in low-Earth orbit? All of these are complex questions with no easy answers that will have to be addressed by the Trump administration and National Space Council.
A stepping stone to Mars
Pence also said the Moon will serve as a stepping stone to Mars, as was the case during the Constellation program. But how, and on what timeline?
The argument that the Moon is a direct stepping stone for Mars is complicated. There are major differences in entry, descent and landing technologies. The Moon's relative closeness keeps astronauts in near real-time contact with ground controllers, whereas a trip to Mars will entail up to 45-minute delays for a single question-and-answer session. The surface environments are different, changing the design on everything from rovers to spacesuits to dust filters. There are also the issues related to long-duration spaceflight—psychological health, prolonged weightlessness, automation—that a lunar base will not provide ready solutions to. Operational costs are another matter. NASA spends on the order of $3 billion per year to operate, crew, and resupply the space station. How much will it cost to maintain a presence on the Moon? For how long? How much money will be left over to then go to Mars?
There may, however, be broader U.S. interests in play. Pence and other national security-minded congressional representatives and military officers see the Moon as a strategic high ground, especially in regards to China. Space council executive secretary Scott Pace has previously said the Moon provides a way for America to strengthen international partnerships, which bolster the country's larger foreign policy interests. As we've noted before, one way to build consensus for a successful civil space program is tying it to larger national objectives.
But will NASA funding match these objectives? This has been a problem in the past, and the answer will be found in the agency's upcoming budget release next February. Earlier this year, the Trump Administration proposed a $561 million cut for NASA in fiscal year 2018. Will this new goal of reaching the Moon drive an increase to NASA's budget? Or will it redistribute existing funding to lunar projects as it did during Constellation? If so, from where will this funding be taken?
Presumably, the administration and National Space Council will consider the return on investment for different lunar surface stop-off scenarios, with different levels of involvement by NASA's international and commercial partners. Through its Humans Orbiting Mars workshop and report, The Planetary Society found great value in sending humans to Mars in terms of scientific return, searching for life, and challenging our technological capabilities. How these objectives will fit into a revamped human exploration program for either the Moon or Mars is still unclear.
NASA's Science Mission Directorate also demonstrates peerless capability in the exploration and discovery of our cosmos, solar system, and planet. The Hubble Space Telescope may be the most successful science mission in human history, unlocking many secrets of the cosmos while wowing the public with beautiful images of the universe. No other space agency has sent probes to every single planet in the solar system, successfully landed vehicles on Mars, or sent probes beyond the heliopause.
But today's meeting was very focused on human spaceflight and military space activities. Pence did not mention NASA science, though some panel members did.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Science at NASA is a program with clear goals and a clear pathway, and it generally functions well. It's possible that the National Space Council may not spend a lot of time talking about NASA science because there isn't much to talk about. As interesting as it would be to see an extended discussion highlighting science successes and potential paths forward, we shouldn't read too much into the omission at this point.
Pence also said NASA would re-focus on human exploration. This could be a veiled reference to how NASA's Earth Science Division has grown over the past eight years to be the best-funded science division, and reflects a frequent Republican critique that NASA's portfolio has grown too broad and focuses too many resources on Earth observation. It could also be a broader statement critiquing the previous administration's shifting goals, which first proposed sending humans to an asteroid, then to an asteroid around the Moon, and then settling on Mars without orchestrating a commensurate programmatic or budgetary shift.
The Trump administration's first budget request proposed to spend $8.6 billion of NASA's $19.1 billion total budget on human spaceflight programs: primarily the ISS, commercial crew, SLS, and Orion. Billions of additional dollars relate to indirect human spaceflight costs, such as facility construction, civil servant salaries, related technology development, and more. It's fair to say that at least 50 percent of NASA's budget is already focused on human spaceflight activities. The remaining budget is divided between science (30 percent), aeronautics (3 percent), and space technology (3 percent), with the rest going to related overhead, salaries, and maintenance.
You could also parse this a different way, and emphasize the exploration part of Pence's statement. Perhaps the vice president was addressing the lack of exploratory human spaceflight. The ISS, in low-Earth orbit, does not explore new space. But the ISS has a NASA commitment through 2024—through the end of a potential second Trump term—and there are no discussions to prematurely terminate its operations.
It could also be merely a statement of how the new administration intends to speak about NASA. Both the president and vice president have met with astronauts, spoken with them on the ISS, and visited or mentioned NASA's prime human spaceflight centers around the south. If nothing else, their personal interest is with the astronauts and human side of spaceflight, and the romance of humans exploring deep space is a powerful story.
The most consistent theme during the Trump administration's space policy speeches has been that "America will lead in space again."
As far as civil space is concerned, NASA already leads in every conceivable metric. The main critique—that the U.S. has no independent human launch capability to the space station—is being addressed by commercial crew, which was underfunded by Congress until 2015 (though technical issues now dog both SpaceX and Boeing, resulting in what could be a launch slip for operational ISS flights to 2019). But the fact that two companies are competing to provide human launch capability is itself a reminder of the depth of ability and ingenuity in the U.S. aerospace arena—both in government and commercial markets.
As Brian Berger at SpaceNews points out, the U.S. still leads in space, though its lead is narrowing. Human spaceflight has lacked clear and consistent direction, and despite the efforts to direct the program to Mars, very little progress beyond developing SLS and Orion has been made. The brief focus on the Asteroid Redirect Mission was deeply unpopular in Congress, and divisive in the scientific community. The lack of resources for human deep space exploration has persisted over multiple presidential administrations. And it's still not clear if that cycle will break now.
Yet we should not discount what we saw today: the Vice President, the Secretary of State, other top-level cabinet members, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the CEOs of the nation's top aerospace companies spent three of their precious hours speaking about space exploration. Yes, it's partly symbolic, but symbols do mean something, and we have already learned the Vice President is engaged in America's space program.
But at this point, we still have more questions than opinions on this new policy. We hope that the National Space Council and further statements by the Administration will provide clarity and the answers we need.