July 24th marked the 50th anniversary of humans first setting foot on the moon, but Americans haven’t visited our nearest celestial neighbor since the Apollo program concluded in 1972. The Obama administration was focused primarily on the next goal- a manned mission to Mars by 2030. However, the Trump administration has recently expressed interest in returning to the moon, directing NASA to send a manned flight by 2024 as part of the Artemis program. With the vast differences in current technology and political climate between this directive and by John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, NASA is facing an entirely new set of challenges in revisiting the moon this time around.
From a technological standpoint, it would be expected that sending a manned lunar mission should be far easier than in 1969. After all, today’s smartphones have more computational power than was necessary for the Apollo missions. Even so, the engineering challenges associated with safe space flight, a lunar landing, and safe return are no less daunting than fifty years ago. To make future lunar excursions easier, NASA proposed plans for the Gateway station, which would orbit the moon similarly to how the International Space Station (ISS) orbits the earth. Spacecraft would dock at the Gateway and take lunar landers to the surface. Additionally, such a station could serve as a launch point for missions to Mars. New rockets (the Space Launch System) and a lunar lander are also required. The trouble, however, is that all these key technologies are either far behind schedule, well over budget, or both.
Given the financial obstacles facing NASA’s current plan for a lunar return, it is no surprise that politics is just as important a factor as science. Bipartisan support was essential to the success of the original Apollo program, with both houses of Congress approving Kennedy’s proposed allocation of nearly 4% of the federal budget, in stark contrast to NASA’s current allowance of less than 0.5%. Neither house of Congress has shown substantial support for the Trump administration’s directive or approved the additional $1.6 billion requested by NASA per year for the mission. Returning to the moon could certainly provide further scientific insights about the history of our solar system as well as confirming the Moon’s own origins. It also gives NASA the opportunity to test new technologies on a smaller scale before attempting a trip to Mars. Nevertheless, the current financial situation and political climate make this potentially an even more difficult task than it was fifty years ago.
Managing Correspondent: Andrew T. Sullivan
Press Articles: NASA wants astronauts to go back to the moon in 2024. Is it possible?, CNN
Original Journal Article: “Can NASA really return people to the Moon by 2024? ”, Nature News
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