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The Trump administration wants NASA to get back to the moon by 2024, using any means necessary. But will the money and the commitment be there to support the effort? Science correspondent Miles O’Brien talks to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine about technical and political risk, international competition and his broader vision for the agency.
This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's first setting foot on the moon, a moment for the ages.
But ever since the space shuttles were retired, there's been a renewed debate over what NASA's mission should be. As it turns out, what's old is new again. There's a big push to return to the moon.
Miles O'Brien looks at those questions and the man who tasked — is tasked with overseeing it for our weekly segment about the Leading Edge of science, technology and health.
One year into his tenure as NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine is a man on a new mission for the space agency.
Please join me in welcoming Jim Bridenstine.
It made him a star at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, the annual convening of the cosmic cognoscenti.
So many in this room are familiar that we have been given now a new charge, that we are going to place humans on the surface of the moon in five years.
For a number of years at NASA, they weren't really allowed to talk about going to the moon. And now they not only can talk about going to the moon. The idea that we're going to be there in five years has everybody extremely excited.
U.S. astronauts on the moon by 2024, Vice President Mike Pence dropped that gauntlet at the end of March.
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.
A space race with whom? A private mission designed by Elon Musk and SpaceX or also China, which landed on the far side of the moon in January, and vows to build a permanent encampment there in a decade.
It's a time frame that invokes another race, another era.
John F. Kennedy:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, because they are hard.
NASA delivered on President Kennedy's audacious challenge 50 years ago this July. That moon race was fueled by rivalry with the Soviets, the desire to honor the wishes of a martyred leader, and a blank check from taxpayers.
A lot of things just lined up perfectly to make that happen.
Do you see the similar ingredients right now?
So, it's a different era. That kind of competition doesn't exist right now. But what does exist now that's unique that didn't happen back then is all of the partnerships with international players.
During the symposium, the former Navy fighter pilot, who wasn't even alive during Apollo, met with those international partners. He had some convincing to do. U.S. space policy has shifted with the political wind.
In 2004, President George W. Bush retired the shuttle program and set his sights on the moon, a program called Constellation. But when Barack Obama became president, he made it clear the moon didn't interest him. So, in 2010, he canceled Constellation after an independent committee determined the NASA budget fell far short of the ambition.
The agency was left with a vague underfunded notion to go to Mars. But in December of 2017, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, which put NASA back on course to the moon.
NASA policy has been as dizzying as the stomach-churning gimbal rig test endured by the first astronauts.
When you talk to your counterparts, as you did earlier today, and you tell them, we're going to be there in five years, we need your help, are they kind of hanging on to their wallet a little bit? Are they a little skeptical?
We are anxiously anticipating the resources that come from these other countries. But you're right, not every country will participate at the same level, and we're OK with that.
All the big spacefaring nations were here, except China, conspicuous in its absence.
What are your thoughts on whether China should somehow be brought into this partnership?
So, that goes above the pay grade of the NASA administrator.
What I will tell you is that we follow the law, and the law says that NASA is not going to do any bilateral kind of cooperation with China.
So what will this international sprint look like? To be determined, quickly.
The president has directed NASA and Administrator Jim Bridenstine to accomplish this goal by any means necessary. You must consider every available option and platform to meet our goals, including industry, government, and the entire American space enterprise.
Pence gave that address at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama, where they designed the Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon.
The even bigger rocket they and Boeing are building now, the Space Launch System, or SLS, is troubled.
It's behind schedule. Yes, it's over cost. Yes, it's been a challenge.
Every rocket program in history has had those challenges, but we're almost there. And the problems that it has had historically — it's been under development now for 10 years — we're getting those problems fixed.
Elon Musk's SpaceX is in early development of a huge rocket for missions to the moon and Mars, but it is unlikely a commercial alternative to SLS would be ready in time.
Besides, politics dictates this rocket be at the center of this program. The powerful delegation from Alabama will have it no other way. When he came to NASA, Bridenstine was in his third term as a Republican congressman from Oklahoma. He understands technology through a political prism.
There's two kinds of risk. There's the technical risk and then there's the political risk.
As a member of Congress, I can tell you, I have seen it. The technical risk is irrelevant if the politics aren't right.
Bridenstine has already gotten a taste of the skepticism he is facing among his former colleagues.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas:
The simple truth is, is that we are not in a space race to get to the moon. We won that race a half-century ago.
Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson chairs the House Science Committee.
Rhetoric that is not backed by a concrete plan and believable cost estimates is just hot air. And hot air might be helpful in ballooning, but it won't get us to the moon or Mars.
Even if SLS works, NASA needs a lot more hardware, like the Orion crew capsule built by Lockheed Martin and its service module built by the European Space Agency.
But the agency also aims to build a small outpost orbiting the moon called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. And, of course, it needs a lander. Bridenstine is hoping for help from international partners or maybe commercial players.
Why five years? A lot of people look at it and say, this synchs up with the political calendar perhaps a little bit suspiciously. Is there a political motivation to all this?
I don't think so at all. If there is, nobody has talked to me about it.
So, I will tell you what I think it is. The idea that these long timelines allow the agency to be cast to and fro by political whims, that's what we're trying to avoid.
The plan is more than a sprint, followed by flags, footprints and photos. NASA hopes it will be the beginning of a permanent outpost near the lunar south pole, a base for science and a proving ground for a mission to Mars.
The concern has always been that, on paper, that's a great idea. It's a springboard to Mars. It also could be a cul-de-sac or a dead end.
Because there's only so much money and interest.
And it could lose momentum.
Yes. So you're right. If we get bogged down on the moon and we put all of our resources there, then we're not going to get to Mars. So we don't want that to happen.
Speed, sustainability and safety all at once will not be cheap. There is an expression in the space world made popular in the 1983 movie "The Right Stuff":
No bucks, no Buck Rogers.
And in those glory days, NASA had a whole lot of bucks, more than twice the budget it gets now. So the administration is poised to ask Congress to up the ante on space. It will require bipartisan support.
Sure, NASA can send a man to the moon, but politics is not as easy as rocket science.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Colorado Springs.
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Miles O’Brien is a veteran, independent journalist who focuses on science, technology and aerospace.
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