Trump to the Moon!

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Two stories in the past two days strongly suggest that the Trump administration is planning a two-pronged space policy approach, with the long-term goal of shifting most of space to private operations.

From the first link:

The more ambitious administration vision could include new moon landings that “see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for American on the Moon, by 2020 as well,” according to a summary of an “agency action plan” that the transition drew up for NASA late last month. Such missions would be selected through an “internal competition” between what the summary calls Old Space, or NASA’s traditional contractors, and New Space characterized by SpaceX and Blue Origin. But the summary also suggests a strong predilection toward New Space. “We have to be seen giving ‘Old Space’ a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial,” it says.

Another thrust of the new space effort would be to privatize low-Earth orbit, where most satellites and the International Space Station operate — or a “seamless low-risk transition from government-owned and operated stations to privately-owned and operated stations.” “This may be the biggest and most public privatization effort America has ever conducted,” it says.

Essentially, they are going to do exactly what I suggested back in late December, give SLS/Orion a short-term realistic goal of going to the Moon. This is what it was originally designed for, and it is the only technology presently available that has even the slightest chance of meeting the three year deadline outlined above. More important, this will give Congress something in the negotiations, as SLS/Orion has been Congress’s baby — pushed and funded by Congress over the objections of the previous administration and without a clear mission to go anywhere — in order to keep the money stream flowing to the big “Old Space” companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Obama tried to simply cancel its predecessor, Constellation, and that did not sit well with Congress. Trump however understands negotiation and how to play the game. In order to eventually eliminate SLS Trump is going to provide Congress some short term excitement and some viable long term alternatives.

The long term alternatives will be private enterprise. Even as they send SLS/Orion on its grand finale to the Moon, the Trump administration will accelerate the restructuring of NASA to make the agency less of a design and construction operation and more a mere customer of private space. All non-military Earth orbital operations will be shifted to the private sector over time, so that once SLS/Orion has achieved that goal of completing a lunar mission there will be a strong enough private space sector to replace it, allowing Congress to let it go the way of Apollo and the space shuttle.


  • Des

    Sounds like an interesting idea and I would like to see something like this happen. Given the slow progress so far on SLS and Orion 2020 might be just about achievable but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • wodun

    Maybe they could task Bigelow or someone else to build a habitat to tag along on the mission and then conveniently leave it in a lagrange point as the first module of a new space station to support lunar and Mars activities.

  • Edward

    Also from the first linked article: “But he said the potential for economic development there — from space tourism to a host of industrial purposes to include the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and new materials — cannot be fully tapped ‘as long as the investors think they might be competing with the government.’

    Indeed, it is only recently that investors have become willing to invest in space ventures other than communication satellites. That willingness has been increasing as the years pass and commercial successes accumulate. About two decades ago (just before “recently”), a couple of companies tested the waters in Earth imagery (would the space equivalent idiom be “tested the orbits”?). Those companies did well enough to encourage more proposals in privatization of space endeavors. The problems that Virgin Galactic has encountered, as well as some exploding commercial rockets, have shown that commercial space is not guaranteed to succeed. The disappearance of some commercial companies, such as Kistler, Armadillo, and Firefly, shows that some, many, or most investments will not pay off.

    Back in the early 1980s, respected rocket engineer Robert Truax had the idea of making privately owned, commercial rockets and spacecraft, just as SpaceX and Blue Origin are doing now. The problem that Truax had was that potential investors did not want to compete with the government’s Space Shuttle, which at the time was still expected to do many missions each year. Commercial space must demonstrate that it can beat any governmental competition that it comes across. This is difficult to do when governments can subsidize their own operations, as currently happens with the Ariane rockets.

    The problem being overcome by commercial space is that NASA, as directed by Congress and various presidents, has not expanded space operations as the general public had come to expect. We had seen grand ideas and plans, back in the 1960s, and the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” helped to raise our expectations. However, at the end of the 1980s, it was clear that the Space Shuttle was not up to the expected task, and Congress was doing so much mucking around with the proposed space station, (Alpha or Freedom, depending upon time frame) that the movers and shakers decided that private companies and the general public was going to have to do the job in space. Truax was merely ahead of his time.

    This reminds me: if you let government have the control, all you get is what the government wants, not what you want. (Just like with healthcare, we now have what government wants, not what we want.) If the population is going to get it done, done right, and done soon, we will just have to do it ourselves.

    The problem of competing with government was reaffirmed in the late 1990s when McDonell Douglas and Lockheed Martin tried their own forms of private space, the single stage to orbit DC-X (Delta Clipper) and the X-33 (VentureStar). However, private investment was not forthcoming and both failed when government funding dried up. Technical problems did not help matters any.

    Also in the mid 1990s, Peter Diamandis announced his bold X-Prize (later named the Ansari X-Prize, after the person he was able to convince into funding the prize), inspired by the Orteig Prize that inspired the Spirit of St. Louis, and this got the world pondering the possibility of private commercial space operations. Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne showed that it was possible for private companies to do what only major national governments had done before, and the world would never be the same.

    George W Bush’s plan for commercial cargo ships to the ISS and proposal for commercial crew ships to the ISS helped to inspire investors into competing with governments. Kistler Aerospace was not lucky enough to convince investors that they could compete with governments, but SpaceX and a few others were able to.

    (Obama may have thought that NASA had lost focus, but his actions split that focus from one goal to two different and differing goals.)

    Today, commercial companies have shown that they can do even more than governments have ever done. Blue Origin and SpaceX have landed booster stages, a commodity once thrown away with each launch. Blue Origin has shown that suborbital booster stages can be reused, and SpaceX plans to do the same with an orbital booster stage, next month. Commercial companies have demonstrated revolutionary ideas as well as doing it for far less than government programs cost. Innovation and efficiency in space exploration and use are the bailiwick of private commercial space companies.

    Now we have an idea that a private company may be able to reproduce the Apollo 8 mission, within four years. When is Orion scheduled to do that? A year later? Movers and shakers in government now are talking about turning over Earth orbit to commercial companies from governmental dominance. From the second linked article: “The space agency’s main goal, they say, should be ‘the large-scale economic development of space.’

    What a long way commercial space has come in a third of a century. From Truax to Trump.

    The bonus is that NASA may finally get a purpose again, after years of suffering from an abundance of confusion.

  • BSJ

    You’re right Bob, Trump sure is a comedian. Manned landings on the Moon in less than three years!

    That’s the best joke I’ve heard in a while.

  • BSJ: Heh. You are right of course. There is no way any landing can take place with SLS/Orion, ever. No lunar landing capabilities. I think however that Trump is going to tout Orion’s mission to zip around the Moon and come straight back as his singular achievement. It won’t matter that it is in the plans already and scheduled for 2021. If the publicity works to make it SLS/Orion’s finale mission as he reshapes our space effort around commercial space, I am happy with it.

  • BSJ: I should add that nowhere in the articles or in my post is it implied that Trump plans a manned landing on the Moon. That is something you extrapolated without any evidence. All they are talking about is the Orion lunar orbiting mission that is already planned.

  • LocalFluff

    I don’t see the point at all with having astronauts orbiting the Moon. Going around it with Apollo 8 was a great achievement because it was a precursor to a Lunar landing. But we know what the far side of the Moon looks like now, and how to get around it. We don’t need to reenact the first brave baby steps anymore. And I doubt that Trump would be satisfied by going around in nowhere, I think he wants to grab it right on the ***** or otherwise just let it be.

    The Orion is a bad idea by design. Better just give its profiteers the monies they expect to gain from it cash right now so that the staff and tools now wasted on it can be repurposed for something useful instead. The crew should launch with a small proven rocket, like the concept with Ares V and Ares I, and dock in LEO with a minimal Lunar lander and ascent vehicle launched by the SLS (or other very heavy rockets when available). Then we don’t need to human rate the SLS and we can skip its 3 tons heavy launch escape tower from the 1960s. An SLS plus a Falcon 9 with a Dragon (or an Atlas V with a Starliner) docked as transfer habitat and Earth lander adds to the mission capability and safety.

    Orion is not only obscenely expensive, it is also too heavy for being used as a command module to the Moon and back. “-If only the Moon had a moonlet, our Orion would have a purpose” sighed a NASA politician. “-Hmm, I have an idea about how we can fix that!” suggested some ambitious Caltech student and the ARM mission was conceived in order to pick up some boulder somewhere to redecorate space such that it matches the colors of Orion.

  • BSJ

    “for American on the Moon, by 2020 as well,”

  • Edward

    That was a reference for unmanned “private lunar landers” by 2020 “staking out de facto ‘property rights’” for Americans. That staked out property would likely be some of the water that is almost certainly captured in permanent shadows in craters at the Moon’s poles.

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