For lunar exploration advocates, the moon appears closer now than at any time since Obama took office

On Nov. 14, the public celebrated the “supermoon,” an astronomical phenomenon where the full moon appears a little bigger and brighter than usual because it is slightly closer to the Earth.

This supermoon received extra attention because it was the closest the moon has been to since Truman beat Dewey in 1948.

For scientists and other advocates of lunar exploration, the moon appears closer than it has in years in a different way. A change in presidential administrations is giving them new hope that the moon will become more prominent in NASA’s human exploration plans, and that the government will support commercial lunar efforts as well.

“It’s an important time, given what’s going on in the United States right now,” said Clive Neal, a University of Notre Dame planetary scientist who chairs the Lunar Exploration Advisory Group (LEAG), at the group’s annual meeting Nov. 1 — a week before Election Day — in Columbia, Maryland.

“We need to start putting rubber to the road” by demonstrating the interest in, and capabilities for, lunar exploration, he said. “We’ve been there — Buzz [Aldrin] has been there — but we certainly haven’t done that.

That deliberately echoed President Barack Obama’s famous “been there, done that” dismissal of the moon as a destination for human spaceflight. “I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned,” he said in an April 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center to discuss his space exploration plans. “But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there.”

That speech, and the passage of a NASA authorization bill six months later, brought an end to NASA’s plans for a human return to the moon announced by President George W. Bush in 2004. But even before the outcome of the 2016 election, many at the LEAG meeting were hoping that the next administration would stoke renewed interest in lunar exploration.

Follow the water

In preparation of a potential transition, some have been dusting off and updating their concepts. In 2011, Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute and Tony Lavoie of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center published a proposal to create a base at the lunar poles. That base would be developed by robotic spacecraft to later support human crews, while mining water ice to turn into propellant for use both to support the base and for other applications.

At the LEAG meeting, Spudis presented an updated version of that plan. The original plan made use of only commercial launch vehicles, like the Atlas 5; the revised version uses NASA’s still-in-development Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket for carrying heavier payloads to the lunar surface. Commercial crew vehicles would carry crews into low Earth orbit, with reusable spacecraft ferrying them, and cargo, to lunar orbit and then to the surface.

The new approach costs effectively the same as the previous one: $88 billion over 16 years, versus $87 billion of the original plan. “We hope to get leverage from both international partners and commercial partners,” he said, with those partners contributing components that cover $16 billion of that overall cost.

The base would produce propellant that could be used to support various activities in cislunar space. “Effectively, we’re focusing on benefits, real payback rather than public excitement,” Spudis said, contrasting his strategy with NASA’s Mars exploration plans, which he believes are not sustainable with projected budgets. “Effectively, you’re going to dream about a manned Mars mission forever, and you’re never going to do it.”

Spudis’ proposal, and other concepts that make use of water-ice deposits on the moon, require first finding those deposits and determining how feasible it is to mine them. NASA has quietly been working on one such mission: Resource Prospector (RP), a 300-kilogram rover that would launch in 2020 to land at the lunar poles and look for water-ice deposits in parts of craters that are in permanent shadow.

The mission, funded through the Advanced Exploration Systems division of NASA’s human exploration and operations directorate, has been making steady progress, and is on track for a system requirements review in 2017, said Tony Colaprete of NASA’s Ames Research Center at the LEAG meeting. “We’re really getting into the nit and grit” of mission planning, he said.

The $250 million Resource Pathfinder could play a key role in determining the feasibility of mission concepts that require use of lunar water. “It’s about understanding whether or not it’s economical,” Colaprete said. “That’s ultimately what RP is all about.”

Spudis agreed. “We’re at a level of nearly complete ignorance as to the nature of the polar deposits,” he said. “I look at Resource Prospector as the first dart on the dartboard. It’s going to give us a first-order answer to some of the big questions, but it’s not by any means going to be the only mission we need.”

 Making the moon great again

At the LEAG meeting, attendees hoped that whoever won the presidential election, he or she would give more attention to lunar exploration. Many, though, expected a certain outcome. “There’s been very little talk about space and space policy, but with the potential for this country to elect its first female president,” Neal said, “it begs the question to ask that first female president who will be the first woman to walk on the moon.”

With Donald Trump’s victory a week after the LEAG meeting, that question will be put on hold indefinitely. Instead, the space community is trying to determine how a return to the moon might fit into a Trump administration space policy.

The policy statements the Trump campaign issued in the weeks prior to the election made no explicit mention of the moon — or of Mars, for that matter — instead endorsing a renewed emphasis on human space exploration in general. However, Robert Walker, the space policy adviser to the Trump campaign, did indicate that, at least in his opinion, going back to the moon made sense.

“Personally, I think going to the moon as part of an extended presence in space is vital,” he said at an Oct. 26 meeting of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee. “It’s a destination just a few days away where we’ll learn a lot about humans being able to live in an extremely hostile environment.”

As it turned out, one of the speakers at the LEAG meeting was someone who could have considerable influence on a decision for a human return to the moon. U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) gave a keynote speech at the meeting, touching upon issues of lunar exploration, including the discovery of lunar water ice.

“This single discovery should have immediately transformed America’s space program,” he said, citing its use both to support crews and as propellant. “From the discovery of water ice on the moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines at the poles with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance.”

Bridenstine was invited to speak at LEAG because of his space policy work in the House, including efforts to clear up regulatory issues regarding commercial lunar missions (he was introduced by Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, one company working on lunar landers). But a little over a week later, Bridenstine emerged as a leading, if early, candidate to be NASA administrator in the Trump administration, which could give his views about the moon more prominence as a Trump administration space policy slowly takes shape.

At the conclusion of his LEAG speech, Bridenstine called the risks facing the United States in space, from growing orbital debris to potential threats by China, a “Sputnik moment” for the nation that lunar exploration and resources could help solve. “America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation, and the moon is our path to being so,” he concluded.

Playing the NASA administrator name game

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the names making the rounds as NASA administrator candidates under Trump:

Jim Bridenstine
Bridenstine has been active on space issues since first being elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, serving on the House Science Committee and House Armed Services Committee. Those posts have given him a voice on both civil and national security space policy issues. He is best known for the introduction in April of the American Space Renaissance Act, a comprehensive space policy bill that covered topics in national security, civil and commercial space. The bill was designed to provide what he called a “holistic” approach to space policy, rather that treating those topics separately.

Eileen Collins
Another name circulated as a potential candidate for the job is former astronaut Eileen Collins, who spoke briefly at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland July but stopped short of formally endorsing Trump. Collins, in that speech, said that the nation needed “leadership that will make America’s space program first again.”

Mike Griffin
Would Mike Griffin, who served as NASA administrator under President George W. Bush, be willing to reprise that role under President Trump? Washington insiders say Griffin, who earlier in his career worked for the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization and ran the CIA-backed venture capital fund In-Q-Tel, is being considered — along with Bridenstine — for Secretary of the Air Force. NASA administrator could make a nice consolation prize for either one.

Here are a few tongue-in-cheek suggestions of our own:

Elliot Pulham
The former Space Foundation boss is such a hard-core Trump supporter he may have been fired for it. Pulham’s only problem is that he’d take big cut in pay and would look askance at having to travel on less than Air Force One.

Igor Komarov
With Trump’s belief that the Russians do everything better than the U.S., the the head of Roscosmos would be ideal, except for the fact that he doesn’t speak English and has a Russian passport.

Peter Thiel
Trump’s biggest financial backer is a spacenut and FOE (friend of Elon), but SpaceNews would be reluctant to report on him given his proclivity to sue media into bankruptcy over unfavorable ink.

Hillary Clinton
On the Lincolnesque theory of keeping your enemies close, Obama employed her as Secretary of State. Clinton certainly has the management chops for the job, but Trump would probably rather send her on a one-way trip to Mars.