In his first public speech as NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine had a short and clear message for the aerospace community: “We are going to the Moon.”
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative, a long-range commitment toward the human exploration of deep space, beginning with a return to the Moon. “Major parts of that policy went forward, but establishing permanence on the Moon was abandoned,” Bridenstine said Tuesday.
Then, in 2004, President George W. Bush announced a bold plan to send humans back to the Moon, where they would learn how to operate in deep space and then go on to Mars. This became the Constellation program. Again, major parts of that policy went forward, Bridenstine said. But NASA abandoned the drive back to the Moon.
Different this time?
Before the US Senate confirmed pilot and former congressman Bridenstine, the Trump administration announced a plan to send humans back to the Moon. “To many, this may sound similar to our previous attempts to get to the Moon,” Bridenstine said Tuesday. “However, times have changed. This will not be Lucy and the football again.”
How have times changed? During his brief address, Bridenstine listed several technologies that he believes have lowered the cost of a lunar return. These include the miniaturization of electronics that will allow for smaller robotic vehicles, the decreasing costs of launch, private investment in spaceflight, commercial interest in lunar resources, and new ways of government contracting. (Bridenstine did not mention the Space Launch System rocket or the Orion spacecraft).
NASA has kicked off its efforts to return to the Moon by asking the commercial space industry to help the agency land scientific payloads on the surface of the Moon. By using commercial services, NASA hopes to lower the cost of studying the Moon and getting astronauts back to the lunar surface by the mid-2020s.
Among the big questions Bridenstine will have to address, if he really is serious about sending humans back to the Moon, is whether to continue with the “Gateway” concept in lunar orbit. This waystation has been criticized by some as “make work” for the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket, rather than a needed stepping stone to the Moon. The new administration will also have to consider the extent to which Orion and the SLS rocket are involved in NASA’s exploration efforts, as they cost so much to fly.