This week we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the first time a human being has stepped foot on the surface of a celestial body that is not our own. No human has been back to the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. It’s fair to wonder: When are we going back?
Well, there are some plans in place, with deadlines set sooner than you might expect.
President Donald Trump has declared he wants the United States to “return to Space in a BIG WAY!” And to do so, he’s pushing NASA toward a hasty, yet-to-be funded goal: returning to the moon by the year 2024.
The mission is called “Artemis,” after the Greek goddess of hunting and twin sister of Apollo. It’s a fitting name, as NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has promised that the mission will deliver the first woman to the moon. All the Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and ’70s were white men.
Why is this suddenly a priority for the Trump administration? The mission is certainly Trumpian in its grandiosity; the landing would occur during a second term of the Trump administration. And there’s a lot about it that seems impractical — the rockets and spacecraft that will be necessary to complete the mission are either over-deadline, over budget, unfinished, or nonexistent at the moment.
Confusing matters: Trump recently tweeted that NASA shouldn’t be talking so much about the moon. Instead, he said, they “should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part).” To be clear: NASA is still sticking to its moon plans (and to be even clearer: the moon is not part of Mars). In his tweet, Trump was probably referring to the idea that missions to the moon are a stepping stone to missions to Mars.
Bureaucratic details remain, like how will this all be paid for? It could cost $20 billion to $30 billion over the next five years, Bridenstine told CNN. NASA will need Congress to approve some extra $4-to-6 billion to its budget per year to reach that level of funding.
But it’s also important to know: The mission has scientific merit. And deadlines and political momentum can be useful.
The George W. Bush administration pushed for a mission to the moon. Then, when the Obama administration came in, the directive shifted toward building up capabilities for a journey to Mars. And as we learned in the 1960s, political momentum is critical for space exploration. It makes some sense to complete a moonshot within one administration’s reign. The deadline, in itself, isn’t a horrible idea.
Still, questions remain: Can NASA and its industry partners pull this off? After all, deadlines in human spaceflight have been routinely missed over the last decade by both NASA and the commercial spaceflight industry. And: Will it actually be funded, and at what cost?
Let’s break down what this mission would entail (if it’s funded), and how NASA envisions getting humans to the moon in the next five years.
The scientific case for going back to the moon
Let’s remember, the journey to the moon is, ostensibly, scientific.
The moon can help us understand the development of our entire solar system. The surface of the moon is around 3.5 billion years old, and its many craters and scars tell the story of the environment of our solar system from that time onward. When the moon gets a crater, it remains there unchanged for the rest of time (unlike on Earth, where life and plate tectonics slowly erase this natural history).
“The moon has recorded impact processes that have gone on throughout the entire solar system,” Georgiana Kramer, a planetary scientist who studies the moon, says.
The moon rocks brought back from the Apollo missions helped scientists understand that the surface of the moon formed out of an ocean of magma, just like the Earth. And the data lent evidence to the hypothesis that the moon formed when the Earth was stuck by a massive Mars-sized object.
How Apollo moon rocks reveal the epic history of the cosmos
“Before Apollo, we really did not know how the moon formed,” says Juliane Gross, a planetary scientist at Rutgers University.
Going back, collecting more samples — and particularly samples from the far side of the moon, which have never been collected — will give scientists a more detailed look into the history of the solar system. And we need human hands to do the collecting. “Humans are much more efficient at gathering scientific information compared to rovers or robots,” Kramer says.
Another reason to go to the moon: to prepare to venture elsewhere.
If humans are going to become an interplanetary species, with outposts on the moon and Mars, we’re going to have to learn to live in space. The moon, just a three-day’s journey away, is a great place to do that. We could also use resources on the moon — like water, trapped in ice, which exists on the moon — to help supply those missions.
A more permanent human presence on the moon, which NASA is working toward, could be the start of a new spacefaring age of mankind. It’s a noble idea.
And we can do it. But when?
In December 2017, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, which is basically an executive order outlining NASA’s mission priorities. The directive tasked NASA with leading “the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization.”
However, it didn’t set a timeline to do so — until a few months ago.
In March, the Trump Administration sped up the timeline
With its 2017 directive from the Trump administration, NASA got to work, drafting plans to achieve a long-term human presence on the moon.
The centerpiece of the plan was a space station called the Gateway, or lunar Gateway. It’s a space station, but instead of orbiting the Earth, it will orbit the moon and serve as a launching ground for missions to the lunar surface. It would be reusable and nimble: NASA could change its orbit to pass over any location on the moon.
And like the ISS, the Gateway could be — potentially — continuously occupied by astronauts, establishing a permanent human presence near the moon. The benefit of the Gateway is that is multipurpose. The Gateway could serve as a stepping stone to a permanent base on the surface of the moon, and it would be a decent launching point for missions to Mars or to asteroids.
The plan, as of earlier this year, was to build the Gateway (like the space station, it would be assembled piece by piece in prefabricated modules), and put it in orbit around the moon (maybe by 2026). And like the ISS, NASA was hoping for international support and collaboration to build it.
NASA drafted these plans with the impression they’d have a decade or so to fulfill them. On this timeline, NASA was eyeing a 2028 crewed mission to the surface of the moon. A few months ago, this all got shaken up.
In March, Vice President Mike Pence gave NASA a new deadline: boots on the moon by 2024.
Specifically, the vice president called out the lunar South Pole — a region with some very old and scientifically interesting moon rocks — as a place to land.
Why did the White House speed up the timeline? “Who knows?” Casey Dreier, the senior space policy adviser at the Planetary Society, says.
It’s easy to dismiss the rush as a Trumpian move — to prioritize flashy nationalistic rhetoric over substance. And it very well might be. But when it comes to human space exploration, deadlines can be useful, Dreier explains. Recall President Kennedy’s plea to go to the moon by the end of the 1960s. That deadline, and the political will to realize it, became a reality. Big missions to the moon and beyond need political momentum, which can wane from administration to administration.
If NASA is going to land on the moon in 2024, it has to get through an enormous to-do list
The new target of 2024 means the to-do list is very long. It will be very expensive to complete and will require the partnership of the commercial space industry.
That’s because currently:
NASA’s rocket to launch people to the moon — the Space Launch System, or SLS — isn’t finished and won’t be tested until at least next year, perhaps later.
The Obama administration was a bit more focused on the long term — planning for a journey to Mars by the year 2030. And to get there, it was prioritizing the development of new multipurpose rockets and spaceships for human missions (to the moon, to Mars, to — potentially — asteroids).
This hardware is still in the works and will be key to Artemis.
The SLS has been under development since 2011, and the first of them were originally planned to be tested in 2017 (they weren’t). When complete, the SLS will be the largest, most powerful rocket ever built.
There are three versions of the SLS planned — called Block 1, Block 1B, and Block B — and they each carry a different payload and can be configured to transport either crew or cargo. Due to delays, Bridenstine has hinted it’s possible that NASA could launch an uncrewed 2020 test mission to the moon on a commercial rocket. Though, the Government Accountability Office believes that test won’t occur until 2021.
That’s because “SLS is struggling to meet its schedule,” Bridenstine said during a March Senate hearing. And that puts the 2024 deadline in jeopardy. The plan is still to use SLS, and not commercial rockets (which are less powerful), to send humans back to the moon.
NASA’s space capsule for the journey to the Earth to the moon — called Orion — also isn’t complete.
The Orion is a multipurpose vehicle to sit atop the SLS that will serve as the crew quarters for missions beyond low Earth orbit (i.e. beyond the International Space station). It’s designed to accommodate four astronauts.
The Orion was also announced in 2011, and has yet to be flown with a crew onboard. It did perform an uncrewed flight test in 2014. And will maybe fly it robotically to the moon in 2020 (though that test could be delayed, too).
NASA still needs to build and launch a lunar Gateway space station.
The basic outline for a 2024 moon landing is this: Astronauts would take off aboard the Orion, on the SLS, and fly to the Gateway. Then, they would board a lunar descent craft, go down to the moon, do some moon science, and return to the Gateway before the journey home.
NASA is far along in its development of Orion and the SLS, and it has drafted some plans for the Gateway. On May 23, Bridenstine announced that the first contract to build the first part of the Gateway had been awarded. But there’s a lot more work to do.
Also, NASA doesn’t have a lunar lander (nor has it even approved designs for one) to get astronauts down from the Gateway to the moon.
So, in order to meet the 2024 goal, NASA is turning to industry, asking 11 companies to design prototype landers. Even with the help of industry, this will be no easy task.
“The biggest problem is the timeline of developing a new lunar lander for the first time in a half century,” Dreier says.
It just takes a very long time to design and build a spacecraft that’s safe for humans to use. This is something spacecraft manufacturers struggle with in developing crafts to go to the ISS. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been developing a human-rated capsule — called the crew Dragon — to take astronauts to the ISS since 2010.
It’s still being tested, and in a recent test, the Dragon’s parachutes failed. Another recent test resulted in an explosion. The Dragon was first scheduled to fly in 2017. Again, this isn’t easy. And developing a lunar lander won’t be easy, either.
And, oh, it hasn’t secured funding for the eventual total cost of this mission.
Which brings us to:
So how much is this all going to cost?
The plans — and funding — to achieve the ambitious 2024 landing goal are not yet finalized. But it will likely involve downsizing the development of the lunar Gateway in order to prioritize the development of a lunar lander, Dreier says.
To get started on these plans, NASA has requested an additional $1.6 billion supplemental to the 2020 budget. This has to be approved by Congress, and it’s not certain it will be.
Making matters thorny, the White House has requested the funds be pulled from Pell Grant reserves. That’s the pool of money that helps financially stressed students go to college. It’s true the fund currently has a surplus. But that extra money is a safeguard: It would need that cash if the country slips into a recession, as the need for Pell grants increases during hard financial times. Also, it’s fair to argue, it’s better for scientific progress overall to expand federal grants for college, and get more students on the path to STEM careers, than it is to fund a moonshot.
Still, it’s inevitable that shuffling the money from education makes the Artemis mission more politically charged: Do Democrats really want to take money away from education to fund a Trump a win during his last years in office?
On the other hand, what’s nice about the current budget proposal is that it doesn’t redirect funding from other NASA missions — like its robotic explorations of the outer planets or its Earth science programs, for example. It’s seeking additional money to pay for Artemis.
“I have no intent of redirecting funding from other NASA programs, including science, in support of the human lunar return effort,” Bridenstine told The Verge’s Loren Grush.
So even if the 2024 moon shot isn’t successful, it won’t necessarily be at the cost of other programs.
The total potential cost estimate of Artemis is unknown, but NASA’s going to need a lot more than $1.6 billion. (Bridenstine has characterized the amount as a “down payment.”)
At ARS Technica, space reporter Eric Berger reports that the mission could cost an additional “$6 billion to $8 billion per year on top of NASA’s existing budget of about $20 billion.”
Where’s that money coming from? No one knows at the moment.
“At present we have a White House directive to land humans on the Moon in five years, but no plan, and no budget details on how to do so, and no integrated human space exploration roadmap laying out how we can best achieve the horizon goal, Mars,” Rep. Kendra Horn, the Oklahoma Democrat who chairs the House’s subcommittee on space and aeronautics, said during a recent committee hearing. “In essence, we’re flying blind.”
Correction: This article originally stated the Orion spacecraft has never flown. In fact, a 2014 test launched it into space without a crew onboard.