Mike Pence is losing his patience.
The vice president has become the face of the Trump Administration's mission to put U.S. boots back on the moon, and beyond. Last fall, NASA released a roadmap of its new new plan for via the Lunar Gateway, a space station to be built in orbit around the moon. But that timeline wouldn't put Americans there until 2028.
At yesterday's Space Council meeting, Pence declared that . He demanded NASA return to the moon by 2024—perhaps not coincidentally, the final year of a theoretical two-term Trump Administration—and said that if NASA couldn't do the job, the Executive Branch would find somebody in the private sector who could.
For years now we've been covering U.S. plans to return to the moon and repeat the achievements of NASA's Apollo heyday. Pence's demand marks yet another course correction, yet another change of plans for America's space agency. So here's a reminder of how we got here.
Following the final Apollo mission in 1972, NASA turned its human exploration attention from the moon to Earth orbit. There was Skylab, the American space station of the 70s. The space shuttle dominated 30 years of space travel after its 1981 debut. But President George W. Bush wanted to go bigger.
In 2005, the Bush Administration announced the Constellation program, a three-tiered plan for the future of U.S. spaceflight. Astronauts would learn lessons in Earth orbit and at the International Space Station that would propel NASA back to the moon, and the moon would be a stepping stone to putting boots on the surface of Mars. Constellation would have been powered a few key pieces of hardware. There was the Orion Crew Expedition Vehicle, a capsule for carrying astronauts to orbit. The program also planned two new rockets: the Ares I and larger Ares V, for launching crews and cargo, respectively.
The Obama Years
Bush declared that the pieces of the Constellation program would be ready to replace the space shuttle upon the venerable craft's retirement and put U.S. astronauts on the moon no later than 2020. Neither happened. NASA invested in America's burgeoning private space industry with plans that will, one day soon, allow Boeing and SpaceX missions to carry NASA astronauts to space. But in the eight years since the shuttle's retirement, the U.S. has had no way to launch its own people, relying on paying tens of millions of dollars per seat to an increasingly hostile partner in Russia. And you may have noticed that nobody went to the moon.
By the end of the 2000s, Constellation was in crisis. President Obama called the program over-budget and behind schedule when he took office and ordered a review of his predecessor's big space plan. The Augustine Committee found that Constellation would need vastly more money to reach it goals by its stated deadlines, and eventually he would cancel Constellation. But that was far from the end of the story.
Rather than giving up on ambitious, expensive human space exploration, Obama tried to give NASA a more flexible plan. Lockheed Martin would continue to build the Orion capsule, which would become the signature spacecraft for the agency's future efforts. The two Ares rockets would collapse into one, the project now called the Space Launch System, a heavy-lift monster with more oomph than the Saturn V. Obama envision a new pathway to the moon and perhaps to visit a nearby asteroid.
The Rocket That Wouldn't Die
When Trump assumed the presidency, winning a new space race suddenly became a top priority once again. Trump reformed the National Space Council, toyed with the idea of the Space Force as a new branch of the military, and praised human spaceflight as an arena where the United States could regain its pride and #win again. Lucky for him, the NASA he inherited was building a huge rocket to take people to the moon and Mars. Unluckily for him, many industry observers have come to see the SLS as multi-billion-dollar boondoggle, a rocket to nowhere that exists more for the jobs it creates than for the missions it may fly.
Such criticism has followed the rocket ever since Obama's change of course in 2011. , the deputy administrator of NASA under Obama, has since called for the cancellation of the SLS, as have spaceflight advocacy organizations such as the Planetary Society and the . Besides pointing to the ballooning costs and delays, critics have questioned the very necessity of a building a new mega-rocket rather than relying upon smaller existing rockets or new ones under development by private industry.
Through it all, the SLS creeps along. Its first flight has now been pushed back to 2020, creating a timeline that wouldn't put the Lunar Gateway space station in lunar orbit until at least 2026 and astronauts on the moon until at least 2028. But Pence has put the program on notice—putting U.S. astronauts on the moon by 2024 or bust is the goal, SLS or no SLS.
The winds of change were blowing at NASA earlier this month, when administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency would not push back it lunar plans even if more delays plagued the SLS program. At that point we had to wonder what could take the place of the SLS. Nothing under development at any private space company has as much raw power, not even the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The most likely course of action for NASA is to split the tasks of 2020 Exploration Mission 1 into two, each launched by a different rocket.
It'll take flexibility—and lots of money—to make it happen. What might make this time different is the competition. The U.S. spent a huge sum on space exploration in the 1960s glory days because national pride was at stake. When Bush pushed the Constellation program that started this ball rolling, most nations were far behind the United States' spacefaring might. But China has landed a rover on the far side of the moon, an unprecedented feat. India just knocked down one of its own satellites to prove its orbital muscle to the world. Suddenly, the world is nipping at Uncle Sam's heels.