NASA rejected a Trump administration request Friday to return U.S. astronauts to the moon’s orbit by 2019.
NASA spent almost three months studying how to send astronauts back to the moon’s orbit at the request of the White House. They concluded that although the space agency was “technically capable of launching crew” on the mission, it would be too costly and risky during such a limited time-span. Instead, NASA will launch an unmanned mission.
NASA’s previously planned for the test to be an unmanned launch in late 2018, which would send a capsule into a distant lunar retrograde orbit. The agency suspected that making the spacecraft ready to support astronauts will require additional life support systems, display panels, and abort systems, pushing the project back further.
One Trump adviser told The Washington Post that adding astronauts to the project is intended to be “a clear signal” to the Chinese that the U.S. will retain its dominance in space.
If the crewed flight had been approved, it would have coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing by NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in July 1969.
The announcement follows an April report by NASA auditors that the agency’s efforts to return astronauts to the moon will be delayed due to space program failures in Europe.
NASA’s inspector general’s office said the agency may not be able to launch its lunar mission on schedule due to budget constraints and delays at the European Space Agency (ESA), which is building the Orion capsule for the mission. Orion, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and its support systems is expected to cost $23 billion by the end of 2018.
Trump seemingly wants to return U.S. astronauts to the moon and then send them on to Mars, which will require the giant SLS rocket currently being debated in Congress. The president vowed to “unlock the mysteries of space” in his inaugural address, lending credence to reports that he was exploring sending humans to Mars in a private meeting with billionaire Elon Musk.
Leaked documents say Trump wants NASA to launch a “rapid and affordable” lunar mission by 2020, build privately-operated space stations and assist “the large-scale economic development of space.”
Experts have long suspected Trump’s space agenda will fund exploration with robotic probes and human astronauts with money diverted from NASA’s global warming science programs. Billionaire space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow thinks Trump could ultimately double NASA’s budget.
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