Preliminary budget plans have indicated that the Trump administration is planning to fund Space Policy Directive One, which follows a unanimous recommendation last year from the National Space Council, according to Wired. The directive moves the space program toward an expansion of human activities across the solar system, led by the US. It would begin by returning astronauts to the Moon.
In December, Trump signed the directive at a brief ceremony, on the 45th anniversary of humanity’s last Moon landing, saying:
“We’ll refocus American space program on human exploration and discovery. This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps someday to many worlds beyond.”
The National Space Council was itself reinstated last year by an executive order from Trump, after being active in the 60s and 70s and again under George H.W. Bush. It was last dissolved in 1993. During its first meeting, Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the council, announced the administration’s plans to once again send 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.” In the short term, this means a focus on lunar missions over Mars.
George. W. Bush also sought to send astronauts back to the Moon, but plans were scrapped in 2009 by Obama, who cited funding challenges as well as a desire to prioritize deep space exploration. He said at the time:
“I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before.”
Buzz Aldrin, the second person in history to walk on the Moon, echoed those sentiments, saying to Space.com:
“We’ve done the moon — we understand it better than anything else. We’ve got to stop thinking of short-term hurrahs and start thinking of long-term investments.”
Given the costs, space exploration needs to be undertaken with a clear vision of practical goals and benefits. Budget considerations warned, back in 2009, that a trip back to the moon would cost around 50 billion, or 57 billion in today’s terms. In a time when many other federal science budgets are facing proposed cuts from the Trump administration, such a financially demanding endeavor deserves serious consideration. This includes agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that are working toward crucial public health objectives. For comparison, the entire annual budget for NIH medical research is approximately 32 billion.
It is a slippery slope to say space exploration shouldn’t be a priority at all compared to efforts to improve quality of life on Earth. Like basic research on Earth, science and exploration for its own sake is important in the long run, and essential to maintaining the US position as a global leader in science and technology. And space exploration offers tangible long-term practical benefits specifically. However, these numbers do suggest that space objectives with such massive price tags need to offer a clear sense of scientific purpose, which often also provides a path towards an eventual return on the investment.
NASA points out on its own website that the primary motivation for the effort in the 60s towards “sending a man to the Moon was political, not scientific.”
With the Soviets having beat the US into space, officials sought a way to take back the space race narrative. While there were scientific benefits to those initial Moon missions, the political motivations and abstract sense of accomplishment and exploration were the real drivers. With both India and China looking towards lunar exploration, it seems highly likely that Trump, who spoke often of the need to vigorously compete with China during his campaign, is looking to maintain the American monopoly on human exploration of the Moon.
There are indeed scientific benefits to further research on the Moon. However, it’s important to realize that today, scientific goals would be served most affordably, efficiently, and in a more reasonable time frame, by starting with unmanned missions. These missions offer far more potential than they did during the space race in the 60s, and with far less cost and risk than human missions. Not only is the equipment to keep astronauts alive itself expensive, but the need for this gear also raises the fuel costs associated with these missions. Perhaps the next steps into space will involve unmanned missions to Mars, deep space, and even back to the Moon to achieve specific objectives.
Without a clear advantage in achieving scientific goals, the cost of a crewed mission to the Moon is likely to exceed its practical benefits. International bragging rights are not reason enough to spend so massively on a program that may not be the best path forward for scientific discovery.