Trump seeks $1.6 billion more for NASA, cuts money to Gateway


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The Trump administration, in order to support its desire to accomplish a lunar landing by 2024, is requesting a $1.6 billion increase in NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2020. The key detail however is this:

NASA shortly thereafter published a summary of its budget amendment, which calls for nearly $1.9 billion in new funding for developing lunar landers and accelerating work on the Space Launch System and Orion. It would also go towards exploration technology development and additional science missions to the moon. That increase would be offset by cutting funding for the lunar Gateway by $321 million, reflecting the agency’s plan for only a “minimal” Gateway needed to support a 2024 landing.

In other words, in total Trump wants $1.6 billion more. The good news: He is de-emphasizing Gateway in his future plans. This might even lead to its cancellation as a project.

The bad news? He is pumping more money into SLS/Orion. However, this might not be that bad, when one considers how our bankrupt Washington government functions. Trump doesn’t have the political backing to cut SLS/Orion outright. Instead this proposal is that project’s Hail Mary pass for a touchdown. While private efforts continue to mature to develop cheaper rockets and manned capsules, SLS/Orion will have this one last chance to finally prove itself. If it finds it can’t get it done, and those private options show that they can, then Trump might finally be able to harness the political will in our dumb Congress to dump SLS/Orion.

And if SLS/Orion does succeed? The victory will likely still be a Pyrrhic one. SLS/Orion will still be too expensive and too slow to do much else but a single lunar landing, a stunt much like Apollo, with far less long term possibilities. Meanwhile, those private efforts will continue to develop. By 2024 a switch by NASA to private enterprise and competition will still make sense anyway, even if SLS/Orion gives the nation a spectacular lunar landing.

This action indicates that the Trump administration is paying attention to these matters. They are creating a situation that will put them in a strong negotiating position to get what they want, for the nation. One way or the other, we will be heading back to the Moon.

One minor detail: NASA has chosen “Artemis” as the name for its project to land on the Moon by 2020.

Bridenstine also … announce[d] that this 2024 lunar landing mission will be named Artemis, after the sister of Apollo and the Greek goddess of the moon. “I think it is very beautiful that, 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man and the first woman to the moon.”

No one should be fooled by this. Apollo was a full program, with a well-thought slate of missions designed to get us to the Moon quickly. This SLS/Orion project is still an off the cuff mishmash, with only two or three flights at most, and without much of a plan behind those flights. It has been and continues to be an improvised mess.

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4 comments

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Apollo was a full program, with a well-thought slate of missions designed to get us to the Moon quickly.

    The missions planned not only got us on the Moon but expanded Apollo’s exploration of the Moon:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Apollo_mission_types

    In addition, the Gemini program was a series of missions designed to teach us how to do everything that we needed for Apollo, from maneuvering in space to docking to getting out of a spacecraft and performing work tasks.

    All I have seen for Orion-SLS is an end goal and not much after first landing. In the 1960s, many periodicals told us about what Apollo was going to do and how it was going to work. I don’t see much of that for Orion-SLS.

  • wodun

    LS/Orion will still be too expensive and too slow to do much else but a single lunar landing, a stunt much like Apollo, with far less long term possibilities.

    They only have so many engines. Has anyone seen anything on ARs efforts to build replacements?

    People are too focused on SLS/Orion/Gateway. It doesn’t look like SLS has a long life and other launchers have been floated for nearly all the SLS missions. It looks like a lot of people unhappy with SLS still want some big government program that does “things.”

    The important part of what NASA is doing are all of the other proposed missions. Yes, it isn’t well defined but getting to the Moon the fastest or the cheapest isn’t as important as what we do when we get there. What NASA really needs is a strategy, some goals, and some near term calculated risk taking. The tactics and methods to achieve the goals should be flexible and allow for partners to engage in activities outside of serving NASA.

    I think we are seeing some of this from NASA.

    An issue is that we are going into the unknown. You can’t have a detailed a plan for dealing with the unknown. At best you get some broad areas of activity that will take time to develop. So, it can’t be predicted how lunar activities will play out. How do you persuade people to support the unknown?

    The only things that can be planned out with any specificity in the near term are landing locations, launchers, transit ships, landers, habitats, suits, rovers, and some other technology. There is a very narrow set of activities that we can do right now and it will take a lot of experimentation before we get to mines, colonies, determining what ore exists, ect. And it is the colonies, mines, resorts, and research stations that most people will be interested in and some people think will just magically appear. The government has a role to play here. They have their own desires for what to do but they also have a responsibility to enable our populace to engage in lunar activities as well because when we do, a lot of problems will be solved and opportunities found that government can’t predict or manage.

  • wodun

    This op-ed is spot on but it also doesn’t quite do what it says needs be done.

    https://spacenews.com/op-ed-accelerating-the-u-s-space-program-requires-measured-risks/

  • Edward

    wodun wrote: “What NASA really needs is a strategy, some goals, and some near term calculated risk taking. The tactics and methods to achieve the goals should be flexible and allow for partners to engage in activities outside of serving NASA. I think we are seeing some of this from NASA.

    This is a good point. One thing that Pence has mentioned is the water at the poles as a valuable commodity. It looks like (some of what we are seeing) harvesting this water is a goal that NASA may try to achieve.

    You can’t have a detailed a plan for dealing with the unknown.

    This is not strictly true. The unknown unknowns are difficult to plan for, but there are several things that we know that we don’t know. A plan for the known unknowns may look something like:

    If there is water at the poles, then we will focus on harvesting it; otherwise we will focus on equatorial exploration. If we find veins of minerals, as on Earth, then we will focus on mining those veins; otherwise we will focus on strip mining regolith. Etc.

    There is plenty that we know that we want to do. We can plan the experiments that we need before we start our mines and colonies, and we can determine what ore exist, etc. We can plan what to do with the water and the other materials we collect. Exploration is one thing that can be planned and priorities set. Some people want to put radio astronomy antennas on the far side of the Moon to get a more complete look at the radio spectrum of the universe, and we can plan for that to happen before there is too much radio interference from orbiting spacecraft.

    A proposal from ESA presents us with one of the problems of letting government do these things as they see fit. Europe’s proposed Lunar Village is an end goal that has yet to have a reason for its existence. It is something that is planned to just magically appear.

    Instead, the Moon should be developed much as the Earth was, villages form as permanently staffed bases or settlements where they are needed in order to support local activities, such as mining, exploration, or experimentation. A few days ago in another thread, pzatchok compared lunar colonies with antarctic research stations, and this seems to be a reasonable analogy. However, it is not a perfect analogy, as there are plans for more than just research on the Moon. There are useful materials on the Moon, and as mining and other activities increase, there will be efficiency in keeping people for long duration missions and having some of them perform agricultural duties to help sustain these stations.

    These can also be planned at the areas where mining, exploration, and experimentation are planned to take place, although it may be difficult to foresee or hold to a schedule.

    A major problem that I see with the Space News commentary that wodun linked, above, is that it assumes government (NASA) takes the lead. The commentary points out some of the flaws with this strategy: “Past administrations have had grand ambitions for post-Apollo space exploration, but they ultimately collapsed without sufficient buy-in from Congress and, thus, the funding to succeed. … We must clearly communicate a bold plan at this juncture with the full participation of taxpayers, Congress, industry and international partners.” Solving this problem is not easy to do.

    However, commercial enterprises are able to hold onto goals for longer periods of time than governments can. They can be self financing, as they find profitable endeavors that help to fund further expansions into additional profitable endeavors. They only have to convince their stakeholders (e.g. owners) that their plans are viable; they do not have to convince taxpayers or Congress, two groups with other priorities. Commercial enterprises are more likely to expand faster than governmental ones.

    NASA may be able to provide some valuable exploration so that “Our investments today will enable entrepreneurs to close their business plans in the future.” Once again, NASA has to convince a lot of people who have to remain convinced over a long period of time.

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