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Opinion: The 'five-year' moon plan is dangerous

March 28, 2019

I can't wait to see humans bunny-hop across the lunar surface again (this time in HD quality). But Trump's moon plans aren't part of a healthy "space race." It's presidential PR, and it will endanger astronauts.

Totale Mondfinsternis 2019 in Frankfurt
Image: REuters/K. Pfaffenbach

To understand the Trump administration's dangerously flawed moon logic, start with the date April 24, 2017. That's when the US president made a shockingly candid remark during a video call to the International Space Station.

US astronaut Jack Fischer had just finished describing some of the "delicious coffee" he'd had in space when Trump smiled and changed the subject.

"Tell me," the president said, "Mars. What do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule? And when would you see that happening?"

US astronaut Peggy Whitson answered.

"Well, I think as your bill directed, it will be approximately in the 2030s," she said. "As I mentioned, we are actually building hardware to test the new heavy launch vehicle, and this vehicle will take us further than we've ever been away from this planet. Unfortunately, spaceflight takes a lot of time and money."

"Well," Trump replied, "we want to try and do it during my first term, or, at worst, during my second term. So we'll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?"

A few people in the oval office laughed. NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, though, who was sitting to the right of the president at that moment, looked alarmed.

Later, Trump's comment was written off as a joke. But it showed how the US president thinks about space missions — as a thing to be accomplished during a presidential term.

The exchange also lends credibility to an anecdote from a former communications official for the Trump administration, Cliff Sims. In his book Team of Vipers, he describes how President Trump offered NASA's acting administrator "all the money you could ever need" to put astronauts on Mars — by the end of Trump's first term.

Mars 2020? Forget about it

That's a wildly unrealistic timeframe for a crewed Mars mission, and it's a dangerous thing to even ask. Space missions are slow because new engineering solutions are created from scratch. If you're planning to put humans inside of these sparkling new hunks of metal, the metal needs to be tested. Arbitrary deadlines limit the amount of research and testing that can be done, and they raise the risk of catastrophe.

Dillon Conor Kommentarbild App
DW Sci-Tech editor Conor Dillon

The whole episode could have been forgotten – but then came March 26, 2019, when US Vice President Mike Pence delivered a stunningly aggressive speech at the National Space Council meeting in "Rocket City," Alabama.

There, he announced that "the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America [is] to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years."

Five years.

"Failure to achieve our goal to return an American astronaut to the Moon in the next five years is not an option," he continued, adding that commercial rockets and contractors would be used if they were the only way to achieve the five-year goal. "If NASA is not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the Moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission."

In plain language:  "NASA, you've got until 2024 — or you're fired."

This was a threat aimed at NASA officials, and the space agency's administrator replied in the only way he could.

Still, why not stick to the original 2028 moon plan, which is what NASA was planning to do anyway? Wouldn't that have been fine?

Earlier in the speech Pence mentioned a "space race" with China as the backdrop to change… but that doesn't really make sense.

Yes, China dropped a robot on the Moon's "dark side," but most experts don't expect the country to send humans there until the 2030s. So unless US officials know something we don't, the original goal of 2028 should have been fine. And if they do know something we don't, why not say it?

And before November, please

So again, why, suddenly, "within five years?"

Well, based on the available evidence, it would stand to reason that 2024 was chosen because, if Trump wins a second term, a lunar landing would lend him a lasting legacy just before his departure.

The event would also be a welcome PR boost for his US Republican party — and right during the boiling point of the 2024 presidential and congressional elections. When US astronauts landed on the moon in July of 1969, for example, it gave then-President Nixon a temporary bump in approval ratings of about four percent.

This seems to be the real reason behind the US' new five-year plan to return human beings to the moon by 2024 instead of 2028 — domestic politics. The goal is not to win a "space race," but an election. If this were a Hollywood movie, it's the kind of twist you'd expect from one of America's autocratic adversaries, not from America itself.

And it will put the lives of US astronauts at greater risk.