When President Donald trump and Vice President Mike Pence announced the signing of a space policy directive that sets America on a course back to the moon, response to the event was muted by a degree of skepticism. Two American presidents named George Bush had announced similar programs only to see them come to naught. Neither Trump nor Pence filled in any details, such as budgets, timetables, and especially when we might expect astronaut boots to be on the lunar surface.

Setting the date for the next moonwalk

One of the more brilliant aspects of President John F. Kennedy’s moon race challenge is that he set a deadline, “Before this decade is out.” JFK knew that had NASA not have been ordered to get a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, the first Moon Landing would have slipped well into the 1970s if it happened at all.

Deadlines tend to focus the attention of people for whom they are set.

In that spirit, Trump should set a goal of getting the first astronauts on the moon by 2022, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 moon landing. Five years may be ambitious, but since some elements of the return to the moon architecture, the Orion and the Space Launch System, are already being developed, it is doable. Moreover, commercial alternatives such as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the Big Falcon Rocket and the Blue Origin New Glenn are under development. All that is needed for a new start is some kind of lunar lander, which could be created in a lunar version of the commercial crew.

The 2022 date gives Trump wiggle room just in case a slip happens.

Even if the next Moonwalk happens two years later, it will still be within the second term. The deadline will serve as a reason to increase NASA’s exploration budget and form commercial partnerships.

How do we get back to the moon?

Eric Berger of Ars Technica suggests three scenarios. First, he posits a status quo approach in which NASA doesn’t get a significant increase and things putter along until a moon landing takes place maybe in 2030, if at all.

Second, he suggests a substantial increase in NASA’s budget, about $4 billion more a year, to get the back-to-the-moon effort on track for happening sooner rather than later. The last scenario has NASA going radically commercial, outsourcing most, if not all of the return to the moon architecture.

The most likely approach that the White House will pursue if it is entirely serious, is a combination of more money for NASA, less than Berger suggests but more than now, and commercial, especially for a lander and surface habitats.

The first indication of what approach is being taken will be the presentation of the 2019 budget early next year.

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