The details of President trump’s plan to return Americans to the moon have started to leak out. The campaign will include the systematic extension of American infrastructure to cis-lunar space, which will consist of lunar landings beginning in the early 2020s. However, likely the most controversial aspect of the plan would be the ending of direct NASA support for the International Space Station, replacing it with some sort of commercial arrangement, by 2025. More questions than answers have arisen with the revelations.

Farewell to the space station era

The plan would involve the ending of NASA’s direct support for the ISS by 2025. America and her international partners have committed to the ISS through 2024. In theory, that commitment could extend through 2028 before the structure of the space station starts to wear out. The end of NASA’s participation in the ISS would free up $3 billion to $4 billion for deep space exploration, back to the moon and on to Mars.

The language of the NASA budget request suggests that low Earth operations would be taken over by some kind of commercial arrangement. Does that mean that a commercial company would take over the ISS? Perhaps a private space station, say one built by Bigelow Aerospace, would replace the government space station.

On to the moon!

The more exciting part of the plan involves sending Americans back to the moon starting in the early 2020s. The language includes suggests a campaign to establish an American “preeminence to, around, and on the moon.” Private, public partnerships and alliances with international space agencies, would be combined with “innovative approaches to lunar robotics, a cislunar presence, and human sorties possibilities” Transportation services and landers would be developed with the private sector to access the moon.

The deep space gateway would be started by 2022 with a commercial rocket delivering the power and propulsion module.

Unanswered questions

Naturally, a lot of unanswered questions arise with the revelations. How much of a role with the commercial sector have in the campaign to return to the moon? When will the first human astronauts place moon boots on the ground, a singular milestone to be sure?

How much more will the lunar program cost? And, the most pressing question of all, how will Congress react to these plans that would radically change how America does space?

One thing is for sure, 2018 is going to feature a significant debate on the future of the American space program. The White House is going to have a selling job to do, a task that previous administrations failed at for their return to the moon plans. The president will also have to support his program long term as well. The project also casts into sharp relief the urgency of overcoming Democratic objections and putting in place a permanent NASA administrator to make the return to the moon happen.