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As Trump administration pushes for new space exploration, critics question its costs

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission is being commemorated extensively, including at the White House, where President Trump recognized the crew's two surviving members. Their conversation included discussion of a new push to travel to the far side of the moon and beyond. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien looks at NASA's ambitious agenda and how private companies might achieve it first.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of humans first setting foot on the moon. It's being commemorated in many places this weekend, including at the Washington Monument and at the White House, where President Trump welcomed the two living members of the Apollo 11 crew today, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins.

    And the president discussed a new push to go the far side of the moon and beyond.

    Other countries have their own efforts under way. China, which landed a robotic rover on the moon this year, and India are working toward manned missions — manned missions.

    Tonight, we look at NASA's plans and how a much more ambitious private sector fits in.

    Naturally, Miles O'Brien is our guide for this report about the leading edge of science.

  • Man:

    Liftoff. We have a liftoff.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    By definition, anniversaries are all about looking back and reliving the glory days.

  • Neil Armstrong:

    That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And this week, we have been doing a lot of that, as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing.

  • Man:

    And liftoff at dawn, the dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But NASA wants to point the lens toward the future. The hope? Once the golden anniversary passes, Americans will put some gold into a moon shot for another generation, one that looks like this.

    The rocket is called the Space Launch System and is even larger than the mighty Saturn V, the rocket that carried Apollo missions to the moon. Sitting atop the SLS is the Orion crew capsule, also larger the Apollo command module.

    President Trump directed NASA to return to the moon at first by 2028. But, this spring, Vice President Mike Pence moved that time frame to 2024, citing concerns over China's space ambitions.

  • Mike Pence:

    Now, make no mistake about it. We're in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But some in the space community aren't as worried about China. Even so, most remain eager to see the revival of manned missions. Orion would dock at a mini-space station called Gateway that would orbit the moon.

    From there, the crew would fly a lunar lander to the surface. The new moon project is called Artemis, named for the twin sister of the Greek god Apollo.

  • Jim Bridenstine:

    The moon is a proving ground for a sustainable human presence on the next destination, which is Mars.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says the bigger picture for the Trump administration is even more ambitious, a sustained human presence on the moon, using that lunar base to learn better how to design an outpost on Mars.

  • Jim Bridenstine:

    Think of it as a reusable command and service module that is permanently in orbit around the moon. So, the purpose of the gateway is about lunar activities. But the next gateway is about deep space exploration, and maybe the third gateway is the journey to Mars.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Some experts think a return mission to the moon by the U.S. government is unnecessary. President Trump has his owns doubts about going there, which he reiterated today while meeting the surviving members of the Apollo 11.

  • President Donald Trump:

    To get to Mars, you have to land on the moon, they say. Any way of going directly, without landing on the moon? Is that a possibility?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Many agree with the overarching goal to send humans to the Mars.

    That includes Michael Collins, one of the three members of the Apollo 11 crew that first landed on the moon 50 years ago this week.

  • Michael Collins:

    I would say Mars should be our goal. Do we have to be in a hurry to get to Mars? No, I don't think so. I wouldn't put it on an expedited basis, the same way that Apollo was an expedited national program. But it should be definitely where we want to go. It should be our target, our destination.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    For now, the realities are sobering.

    Orion and the SLS rocket are years behind schedule and billions over budget. The price tag for the Artemis project would be large. Bridenstine says it would cost $20 to $30 billion. The space agency is only set to get an additional $1.5 billion next year, not nearly enough.

  • Lori Garver:

    Are they going to ask for $10 billion extra next year? I mean, it's just hard to imagine a realistic scenario.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Lori Garver served as NASA's deputy administrator during the Obama administration. She says money is a big part of the reason she doesn't support an Apollo-like program, meaning tightly controlled by the space agency, with cost plus contracts for the likes of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

  • Lori Garver:

    I would love for humanity ton be on the moon and Mars. But it is not up to the federal government to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to do that. This is not something the government should be doing, because the private sector is investing their own money in very large launch vehicles.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Garver says the government is pushing to do the work, not just because of exploration, but because jobs are at stake.

    Even as NASA pushes forward, the private sector pushes faster. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is financing a space exploration company called Blue Origin. He has expressed interest in building a lunar lander. And the largest private sector player, Elon Musk's SpaceX, is building its own rocket and capsule to get to the moon, Musk claims by 2023, a year before NASA's current deadline.

    Garver is now chair of an initiative called the Earthrise Alliance, which advocates using space technology to help solve the climate crisis. She says that should be the priority.

  • Lori Garver:

    And I think that NASA could do and should do over the next few years more investment in addressing the existential threat today, which is climate change. Lives are going to be lost and hurt in the next decades if we don't do it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    There is one change coming to this lunar program that is universally applauded. NASA is promising the next human to leave a footstep on the moon will be a woman.

    The space race in the '60s was all white and all male, leaving minorities and women behind.

  • Lori Garver:

    It's upsetting, frankly, to think about how many women were discriminated against in the early years of spaceflight. Until the space station, we have never had more than 50 percent or more female participation. I would be thrilled with the next 12 people on the moon being women.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Fifty years ago, the space race was the centerpiece battle of the Cold War. The support was bipartisan and the big money kept flowing.

    That was then. It's hard to find evidence that this is also now.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Miles O'Brien.

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