When Vice President Mike Pence announced that NASA would put moon boots on the lunar soil by 2024, four years earlier than the previous deadline, incredulity spread through aerospace and political circles like the shock waves of a nuclear blast. Could NASA return Americans to the moon in five years? Should the space agency undertake the task?
During a hearing on the moon plan, House Science Committee Chair Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) demanded to know, “What is the justification for this crash program?” She answered her own question a few seconds later by adding, “The truth is that we are not in a space race to get to the moon. We won that race a half-century ago, as this year’s commemoration of Apollo 11 makes clear.”
Johnson is wrong. The space race of the 1960s was with the Soviet Union. Today’s space race, according to Pence, is with China. If the Chinese land on the moon before Americans return, it will not matter that the United States once won a race a half-century ago. The signal that America is in decline and that China is becoming the new dominant superpower will be clear for everyone to see.
NASA Administration Jim Bridenstine, the young reformer who was placed in charge of America’s space program, is keenly aware of the task at hand. “In order to achieve the 2024 moon landing, we’re going to need a bigger budget,” Bridenstine said in an interview. “That absolutely must go through a bipartisan process in Congress. What I have found is that it’s not just partisan. It’s parochial. We have 10 centers across the nation. If one of those centers, if a senator or a congressman feels like their center is not getting a fair share, then they oppose what we’re trying to achieve. So, we have to look at this holistically.”
Bridenstine will have to, among other things, make the increasingly expensive, behind schedule Space Launch System ready to start sending equipment and people to the moon. The cheaper, easier option of using commercial rockets is off the table — at least for now. An attempt to cancel the SLS and, say, go with the big rocket that SpaceX’s Elon Musk is building in south Texas would incur that wrath of Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees NASA. Shelby and his allies have the power to shut down the moon effort unless their aerospace contractors and the registered voters employed by them get a piece of it.
Also, several congressional Democrats such as Johnson are skeptical of the project, regarding it as a “vanity” effort by President Trump to burnish his legacy with a moon landing before the end of his hypothetical second term. Bridenstine must convince them that getting Americans back to the moon will be beneficial for the United States aside from making Trump look good.
An earlier than expected moon landing will help avoid a tendency that NASA has suffered in recent decades of constant delays and cost overruns for major projects. The International Space Station, first proposed by President Reagan in 1984 and scheduled for 1992, was not even begun until 1998. By setting an early date for the next moon landing, the Trump administration hopes to avoid those problems.
Ordinarily, the president of the United States seeks to influence Congress to see large scale space projects through. President Lyndon Johnson was able to achieve President John F. Kennedy’s dream of a landing on the moon by the end of the 1960s. That model did not work for the last two attempts to return to the moon. President George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative was met with hostility by a Democratic Congress and was canceled by President Clinton. President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration was canceled by President Obama.
Ordinarily, President Trump would take the lead in advancing his lunar program. However, Trump is hated so thoroughly by many congressional Democrats that his direct involvement would be a liability.
Jim Bridenstine, on the other hand, was once a member of Congress and has friends on both sides of the aisle. To be sure, his status as a politician was a liability during his confirmation hearing. However, he was nonetheless confirmed after a lengthy battle. Bridenstine provides America with its best hope of returning to the moon five years from now, a fact that must be as motivating to him as it is a burden.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.