Is Trump’s Moon Program for Real?
Update, June 28. Trump has now insisted on around the clock work to launch an unmanned rocket and the Orion capsule around the moon by Fall, 2020. This really shows the political nature of the schedule, to glorify Trump with the mission just before the 2020 election.
Watching parts of the Humans to Mars conference, it starts with the Gateway to Explore the Moon and Mars, which orbits the Moon, and is a low gravity launch platform to reach the Moon or Mars. Trump has taken the nine year return to the moon program and collapsed it to five, so that we land in 2024, Trump’s presumed last year in office, so the glory goes to his accomplishments. There are some speakers who freely express their skepticism about the new schedule, and question the political support.
Yesterday, NASA administrator Bridenstine announced that Trump had added $1.6 billion to the next NASA budget to cover the program. This should be a relief to NASA astronomy programs, since this was said to have no impact on their funding. However, some are questioning the size of this first year start to a much hastened five year program to the moon.
The plans for the program are not yet fully conceived or analyzed. Trump himself said that they could switch if some vendor appeared faster than others. This is typical Trump disruptiveness, which has to undercut all efforts. It also emphasizes speed over safety and well analyzed scientific goals.
Politically, what happens if analyses show that NASA and vendors cannot meet the 2024 goal? Does that mean that Trump will just abandon the program? What happens if Trump is not reelected? Why did Trump have VP Mike Pence and Jim Bridenstine announce the program and funding? Is it because he knows that it may fail, and doesn’t want the blame, although he will take credit if it succeeds? Undoubtedly, Trump will scratch any Mars connection if funds and the schedule get tight, which they will. One could even wonder if the Moon program is just an exciting idea for Trump’s 2020 election, which he could easily drop or extend in 2021.
Oddly enough, I was an instructor at Princeton Physics in 1999 with Gerard K. O’Neill’s class when he taught freshman physics, and used a moon orbiting colony as an exciting project to interest students in elementary calculations. This would make mining the moon and space transport easy, which is now called the O’Neill Cylinder or Colony.
The Mars human landing program is schedule for 2033, but has been estimated more conservatively for 2039. The total costs for the Moon or Mars programs has not been much discussed.
Since we can launch to Mars every two years, there could be 10 rovers sent to Mars by 2039, including sample return missions, and by many countries or coalitions. The manned missions take eight weightless months getting there, six months on the surface at 1/3 gravity, and eight weightless months back. However, lengthy Space Station assignments have been accomplished.