NASA is at a critical juncture in its push to get people back to the moon by 2024, with key decisions expected within weeks.
This effort to meet an ambitious deadline set by the Trump administration last year faces widespread skepticism in the aerospace community, even as the new head of human spaceflight at NASA insists that it can succeed.
No one has been to the moon since 1972, even though, back in 2004, then-President George W. Bush laid out several goals for NASA, including a "return to the moon by 2020 as the launching point for missions beyond."
A lot has happened in the intervening years, and former President Barack Obama had other priorities in space.
In March of 2019, however, Vice President Pence announced that "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."
That would mean a remarkable speedup for NASA, which had been working toward a moon landing in 2028. In September, a member of Congress asked Ken Bowersox, who was the acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, how confident he was that the U. S. would have boots on the moon by this new, earlier deadline.
"How confident?" Bowersox replied. "I wouldn't bet my oldest child's upcoming birthday present or anything like that."
Soon after that hearing, however, NASA hired a new guy to lead human spaceflight: Doug Loverro. Loverro is more bullish.
"I see no reason why we can't make it," Loverro says. "I am highly confident we can make it."
Loverro is so conscious of the target date that he wears a little brass-colored lapel pin with a number on it. Every day, he changes the pin and its number, so that it counts down the days to the end of 2024. "To me, it means recognize the value of every day," Loverro says. "Every day we go ahead and can do something that puts us one step closer to the moon."
He currently has a review underway to assess the status of NASA's whole moon program and says the results are due on Feb. 14.
That review is looking at the big rocket NASA's been building, which is almost finished — although it's super expensive and years behind schedule. NASA's also got a new astronaut-carrying capsule that's undergoing testing.
For a moon mission, one critical piece of hardware is missing — a lander. NASA needs a spacecraft that can take people from lunar orbit down to the surface and back up.
"So that's the piece that right now is the focus of 'How do we make sure we create a lander that we can develop and get to the moon in the next five years?' " says Loverro, "or, in this case, in four years and 11 months."
NASA says contracts to build a lunar lander could be awarded in late February or March.
However, other space industry experts are doubtful that NASA can get to the moon so fast.
"I don't think that we'll have a man or a woman on the moon in 2024, and I don't know anyone who does," says Lori Garver, CEO of a nonprofit called Earthrise Alliance and a former deputy NASA administrator.
"The space community would love to get contracts to go back to the moon, and it doesn't really bother anyone that they would get those contracts saying that they could do it in 2024 and not make the deadline," Garver explains. "We haven't made deadlines with these major space programs since Apollo."
The Apollo moon landing of the 1960s took about eight years to achieve, but NASA basically wasn't doing anything else. Political leaders were united behind the moonshot, and the race with the Soviet Union drove the timing, the budget and the willingness to take risk.
"I don't believe that the risk that would be required to get someone back to the moon in five years is anything this nation is ready to do," says Garver, who notes that most people in the space community won't share their skepticism publicly.
"People don't want to acknowledge it, because most people are bought into the system and are making money off the system and this administration holds a grudge," she says. "It isn't a very popular thing to say, that the emperor has no clothes."
One retired NASA astronaut named Leroy Chiao, a former commander of the International Space Station, agrees that 2024 seems like a really long shot.
"My realistic assessment is that it is not likely," says Chiao, who notes that NASA has to deal with a lot of political considerations. "Why was 2024 chosen? Well, anyone can see that, with the election cycles and all that."
A moon landing in 2024 would mean a triumph during the last year of President Trump's second term, if he gets reelected in November.
Chiao says he feels bad for folks at NASA headquarters. He thinks they really want a moon landing and are doing everything they can.
"I don't think they're just blowing smoke necessarily. They've set things up so that there's a somewhat believable story that if the money shows up, they can do it if everything goes perfectly," Chiao says. "But we know from history that that doesn't usually happen."
After all, rockets can blow up. Technical tests can fail. And Congress controls the budgets. Not everyone there feels the same sense of urgency as the Trump administration. A NASA authorization bill just introduced into the House of Representatives would extend the moon landing deadline to 2028.
"I am more interested in maximizing the odds of success for this bold undertaking and making it as safe as any human journey into the deep space can be, than I am in having NASA meet arbitrary deadlines," Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson — a Democrat from Texas and the chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology — said at a recent hearing.
And if someone besides Trump wins in November, the new president will likely have his or her own feelings about returning people to the moon.
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