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signing ceremony
President Trump signs Space Policy Directive 1, formally directing NASA to return humans to the Moon. (credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

Where, but not how or when

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On July 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush gave the directive to return to the Moon from the steps of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush also called for a return from the Moon, this time in a speech at NASA Headquarters, a few blocks from the museum.

The directive, Trump said, “marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972 for long-term exploration and use.”

The third time around, on December 11, 2017, it was President Donald Trump, speaking from the Roosevelt Room at the White House. In comments made 45 years—almost to the minute—after the Apollo 17 lunar module touching down on the surface of the Moon, Trump said it would now be official NASA policy that the United States will return humans to the Moon.

The brief speech was tied to a policy document he was signing, called Space Policy Directive 1 (implying that, in the future, there will be additional space policy directives.) The policy, Trump and other White House officials said, made it the policy of the United States government that astronauts would return to the Moon as a step towards Mars.

“The directive I’m signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery,” Trump said in his remarks. “It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972 for long-term exploration and use.”

Of course, the Trump Administration has been making clear for months that it wanted some kind of human return to the Moon put back into NASA’s plans. What the president signed was a recommendation unanimously endorsed by the National Space Council at its first meeting in October (see “Moon, milspace, and beyond”, The Space Review, October 9, 2017).

“As everyone here knows, establishing a renewed American presence on the Moon is vital to achieve our strategic objectives and the objectives outlined by our National Space Council,” Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the council, said in his own remarks at the signing ceremony.

But what was actually signed? The memorandum removes one paragraph from the current National Space Policy, enacted by the Obama Administration in June 2010:

Set far-reaching exploration milestones. By 2025, begin crewed missions beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid. By the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth;

The directive replaces that paragraph with this:

Lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations;

And that’s it. The rest of the directive is a set of boilerplate provisions. The event didn’t offer any more details, either from the president or the vice president, about how to implement this policy.

Trump said, “So we are the leader and we’re going to stay the leader, and we’re going to increase it many-fold.”

Indeed, the president and the vice president offered conflicting assessments of the state of American space endeavors. “Mr. President, in signing this space policy directive, you are ensuring that America will lead in space once again,” Pence said, reiterating a line he’s stated in the past suggesting that the US has lost its leadership in space (a claim, of course, not universally held.)

Yet, moments earlier, Trump said, “So we are the leader and we’re going to stay the leader, and we’re going to increase it many-fold.”

Neither the memo nor the signing ceremony made clear what will happen next. The most additional information came in a NASA press release issued shortly after the event. “Work toward the new directive will be reflected in NASA’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget request next year,” it stated. That budget proposal should be released in early February.

“NASA looks forward to supporting the president’s directive strategically aligning our work to return humans to the Moon, travel to Mars and opening the deeper solar system beyond,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, said in that statement. “Our workforce is committed to this effort, and even now we are developing a flexible deep space infrastructure to support a steady cadence of increasingly complex missions that strengthens American leadership in the boundless frontier of space.”

That “flexible deep space infrastructure” is likely to include the Deep Space Gateway, the proposed habitat in cislunar space that NASA has been talking up since early this year. Originally described as a facility to test technologies needed for future missions to Mars, including of a separate Deep Space Transport spacecraft in the late 2020s, the gateway could also serve as a lunar space station, acting as a staging post for teleoperating robotic spacecraft on the surface as well as supporting crewed missions to the lunar surface.

NASA had been charged with developing a 45-day report at the first National Space Council meeting outlining strategies for supporting a human return to the Moon. Lightfoot, speaking at a NASA Advisory Council meeting the Thursday before the ceremony, said that report was largely complete, but didn’t disclose details about its contents.

“We continue to work with the Space Council on that action, and they’re reviewing the preliminary draft of that now,” he said. “Once that report becomes more final, we’ll share more information.”

Any missions back to the lunar surface will need more than just a space station in the vicinity of the Moon. There will be landers, rovers, habitats, and other surface systems needed to get astronauts to and from the Moon and to live and work there; who will build them, and when and for how much, isn’t known. And exactly what “long-term exploration and use” that will be carried out there remains uncertain.

With such a blank slate, companies and organizations announced their support for the revised policy, seeing perhaps different opportunities and benefits from it.

“The White House and the National Space Council want to work with industry on this,” CSF’s Stallmer. said.

“This presidential directive affirms US leadership in human space exploration, returning American astronauts to the region of the Moon, while laying the foundation for eventual missions to Mars and beyond,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, a group of more than 70 companies involved in NASA exploration programs, said in a statement. Dittmar was among those attending the White House ceremony.

“The Coalition and its 70 member companies enthusiastically support American leadership back to the Moon, exemplified by Orion, SLS and key exploration capabilities like the Deep Space Gateway,” she said.

Also attending the ceremony was Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, another industry group with a focus more on commercial space markets. “The US commercial space industry has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in private capital to develop innovative capabilities for lunar transport, operations, and resource utilization” that could be put to use supporting this policy, he said in a statement.

In an interview after the ceremony, he added that he believed the administration—which included a reference to working with commercial partners in the directive—is sincere about finding ways to harness the growing capabilities of commercial entities, such as those developing robotic lunar landers and other key technologies. “The White House and the National Space Council want to work with industry on this,” he said.

Congress is also on board with the new policy, arguing that it fits into a stepping-stone approach it called for in a NASA authorization bill enacted earlier this year. “I applaud the president for his engagement on sending a manned mission to the Moon and, as underscored in the bipartisan reauthorization of NASA signed into law earlier this year, eventually to Mars,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, in a statement.

“Going back to the Moon as the precursor to further exploration will enable NASA to test new systems and equipment critical for future missions, like the human exploration of Mars,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee. Such an initiative, he added in a statement, “achieves more than just the practical benefits; it will teach our children and grandchildren to dream big and strive to achieve what others think impossible.”

Even Explore Mars, the nonprofit group that advocates for human exploration of Mars, supported the new policy, provided the new approach retained a long-term goal of humans to Mars.

“Anything we do there should have a feed-forward component that takes us in the direction of Mars,” Cassady said of a return to the Moon.

“We call on the Administration, mission planners, and key players to devise a plan to achieve the stated objective of returning to the Moon, and also landing humans on the surface of Mars in the early to mid-2030s as required by the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017,” said Chris Carberry, CEO of Explore Mars, in a statement.

In a Capitol Hill panel discussion the Thursday before the event organized by Explore Mars, the organization emphasized that a return to the Moon need not a be a distraction to human missions to Mars, provided they’re properly developed.

“The one thing we want to make sure is to follow the guidelines that the National Academies set out in their ‘Pathways’ report, which is don’t go down any dead ends,” said panelist Joe Cassady, a member of the board of directors of Explore Mars.

He was referring to the “Pathways to Exploration” report by the National Academies and released in 2014, which warned that interim steps towards going to Mars should minimize the number of technological “dead ends” that support those interim milestones but not the long-term Mars goal. That report suggested a return to the Moon would offer fewer such dead ends than the Asteroid Redirect Mission being pursued by NASA at the time (see “A new pathway to Mars”, The Space Review, June 9, 2014).

“Anything we do there should have a feed-forward component that takes us in the direction of Mars,” he said of such lunar missions, noting as one example the Deep Space Gateway. “You can envision that, with partners, surface exploration can be undertaken utilizing the gateway.”

So if even the Mars advocates are on board with a human return to the Moon, it should be a done deal, right? But with so much uncertainty about budgets and approaches, it’s not clear when, or how, such missions will be carried out, and whether this strategy will find the staying power the previous two presidential initiatives to return to the Moon lacked.

Getting an astronaut to stand on the surface of the Moon is difficult. So is getting one to stand on a presidential desk. After Trump signed the directive and showed it off to the audience, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, standing behind the president, pulled out of his pocket a small astronaut figurine. He attempted to set it on the desk where the president signed the directive. It fell over on the first attempt.

Trump then picked it up, inspected it with a puzzled face for a moment, and then set it back on the table—lying face down—with a smile.