NASA organized a telephone press conference with NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Bill Gerstenmaier and NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Bill Hill to discuss the study for a mission to send astronauts around the moon in 2019. The media questions and some of the answers proved to be very illuminating.

The study was definitely mandated by the Trump transition team. Gersternmaier was cagey about whether the Trump people signaled why they were proposing such a mission and whether they were open to coming up with the extra money it would doubtless cost.

If the 2019 mission were to take place, it would involve added cost and risks. On the latter, NASA is confident that it could mitigate against a loss of crew scenario by testing escape systems before the first launch of the space launch system. The two officials were silent about scenarios that would involve disasters happening at other times during the mission.

The baseline mission would involve putting two astronauts around the moon and returning them safely to the Earth. The second Orion mission would still take place no earlier than 2021, due to the modifications needed for the launch pad and other things that have to take place.

The tone adopted by some of the questions suggested a forming media narrative that President Trump is willing to endanger the lives of astronauts solely to get a political win, that is to say, a spectacular space mission the year before the 2020 elections. That meme is being whipped up on social media as well by people who oppose the Space Launch System.

Gerstenmaier and Hill denied that they were being pressured by the White House.

The final product of the study would be an analysis of the benefits vs. the cost and risks of an early crewed mission around the moon. The initial results will likely be rolled out in March, but for right now the judgment of NASA is that such a mission is likely to be technically feasible. The question of whether it is desirable will be made above the paygrade of the space agency’s administrator, whoever that happens to be.

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