What does Space Policy Directive 1 say?
The directive dictates that a section of the 2010 National Space Policy be deleted and replaced with new language to ensure that NASA and the U.S. government aim to send Americans back to the Moon first before pursuing deep space exploration, including Mars.
Specifically, the directive deletes these words from the previous space policy: “Set far-reaching exploration milestones. By 2025, begin crewed missions beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid. By the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.”
And it replaces them with: “Lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”
These 63 words could signal a significant shift in the goals and direction of NASA, a $19 billion government agency.
How is it different from the Obama administration’s policy?
In 2010, the Obama administration cancelled NASA’s Constellation Program, started under the George W. Bush administration, due to budgetary and scheduling concerns. The Constellation Program began in 2005 in the wake of the Columbia accident with the goal of sending Americans back to the Moon and establishing a lunar base before sending humans to Mars. Despite its cancellation, some aspects of the Constellation survived, such as the Orion Crew Capsule. Congress and the Obama administration redirected NASA to develop the Space Launch System with the intent of sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit.
Space Directive 1 is a clear departure from the Obama administration and redirects efforts back to cislunar space (the area between the Earth and Moon). One of the strongest arguments to support a “Moon first” approach is that the Moon can serve as a testbed for technologies that will help support human life on Mars. However, the Obama administration and others have argued that a “Mars first” approach would push NASA beyond what it has already accomplished to focus on a more challenging mission.
It is also notable that Space Policy Directive 1 specifically calls for both commercial and international partners, whereas the language it replaces did not include this. While the Obama administration pursued both commercial and international partners for its exploration agenda, the explicit inclusion of these in the new space policy indicates that such partnerships are now a critical component of the Trump administration’s space exploration agenda.
How is it similar to the George W. Bush administration’s space policy?
In many ways, the Trump administration’s Moon first space policy is a return to the Bush administration’s space exploration plan, which also focused on returning to the Moon first before going to Mars.
This fits a recent trend of Republican administrations directing space exploration efforts to focus on the Moon and Democratic administrations directing efforts toward sending humans to Mars. Thankfully for NASA, many of the enabling technologies are similar, such as a large launch vehicle and crew capsule. However, once it is time to plan missions and develop specific technologies to suit either the lunar or martian environments, progress could be significantly impeded if future administrations continue flipping back and forth between destinations.
What has to happen to send Americans back to the Moon?
A few obstacles must be overcome in order to send Americans back to the Moon.
First, in order to implement Space Policy Directive 1, the Trump administration will need to support its rhetoric with funding. NASA will need sufficient funding to execute the directive and make significant headway on returning to the Moon. The FY 2018 President’s Budget, released last May, cut NASA’s budget. If the Trump administration is serious about space exploration, the FY 2019 President’s Budget should include a substantial increase in the agency’s budget and a plan for continued growth over the coming years.
Second, the Trump administration needs to give more concrete details about its plans for sending Americans to the Moon. Space Policy Directive 1 is exceedingly vague in both objectives and timelines. While the previous space policy was also somewhat vague, it at least included a rough timetable for key milestones. The new policy does not include a timetable, and without specific goals or deadlines it will be difficult for NASA to generate momentum and a sense of urgency in its exploration program.
Third, the administration must develop a framework for partnership with both commercial firms and international partners. One of the things that has changed since the last national space policy was issued in 2010 is the emergence of commercial companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, with plans to send humans into space on missions to the Moon and beyond. It is also not clear what role, if any, the International Space Station coalition of partners will play in future exploration missions. International partnerships in space can also yield many diplomatic and security benefits if structured appropriately. It is not realistic to think that the United States can fund an ambitious exploration agenda on its own, and the new space policy appears to recognize that reality. NASA needs to develop a strategy for how it will effectively leverage both commercial and international partners to pursue common goals and achieve its exploration objectives.
If America is serious about sending humans into space again, a consistent plan must be set with broad, bipartisan support. Missions to the Moon and beyond will take time and likely extend long beyond the current administration. Switching goals back and forth between the Moon and Mars not only harms NASA’s programs and technology development efforts, but also public support and buy-in from international partners. The United States needs to set firm goals and stick with them to reduce the risk of cost overruns, to enable commercial and international partnerships, and ultimately to maintain its leadership role in space exploration.