Some bad news and some Good News had come with the Trump plan to return to the moon. The bad news is that no date is set for astronauts to actually land on the Lunar Surface, unlike other plans, such as President Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth by the end of the 1960s. The good news is that the plan sets up partnerships between NASA and the commercial sector to foster privately operated lunar landers that would take instruments, then cargo, and eventually people to the lunar surface.

Returning people to the moon on the cheap

The reason the Trump administration is taking a go-slow approach to the return to the moon is that it is unwilling to increase NASA’s budget in any way for the foreseeable future. The 2019 NASA budget would be $19.9 billion, but it would drop down to $19.6 billion for the next several years. Moreover, the budget features some high profile and controversial cancellations, including the WFIRST space telescope, Earth Science, and the NASA Office of Education. More money would be allocated to space exploration and planetary science. Direct funding for the International Space Station would end by 2025, though the administration hopes to turn NASA’s portion to a commercial company.

The money thus freed would pay for lunar operations in the second half of the 2020s. The commercial companies such as Moon Express are overjoyed at the prospects

Commercial partnerships to fuel a return to the moon

The good part of the plan is that NASA would set aside $200 million for rides on commercial landers to the lunar surface.

The space agency would pay companies such as Moon Express and Astrobotic to take instruments to the moon to start prospecting for resources that would be needed for future astronauts. The commercial lunar landers would increase gradually in size and sophistication over time, taking cargo required for lunar surface operations that would presumably take place in the mid to late 2020s.

In effect, a new commercial space industry would be developed with NASA funding. Combined with making the ISS private and even creating commercial space stations, new businesses would explode on the final frontier before people return to the moon. The commercial companies such as Moon Express are overjoyed at the prospects.

The SpaceX wild card

The wildcard that could alter the slow but steady Trump timetable is the development of the Big Falcon Rocket by SpaceX. The BFR is scheduled to undergo hop tests at the company’s new spaceport near Brownsville next year.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has suggested that orbital flights would happen in three to four years with lunar missions soon after. In theory, if the Trump timeline continues, Elon Musk could beat NASA back to the moon by a wide margin. At the very least the space agency would have a chance to buy rides to the lunar surface long before it can build a lunar lander of its own.