Since winning the election in November, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have made NASA and U.S. space policy a tertiary priority. This makes sense, when you consider that there’s bigger fish to fry (health care, foreign policy, tax reform, etc.) but it is still discouraging for anyone who wants to see dramatic changes take place in America’s space program. There’s one thing the Trump administration constantly returns to though: The president is over the moon about the moon.

Apart from proposing NASA delete its Earth Science missions from the 2018 fiscal budget — which the agency did — it’s largely on track to continue the work of the last several years.

There’s been one strange addition though, the drip-drip of rumors oozing from the White House that Trump and his team want to see Americans on the moon again.

“If you’re a sitting president you want to accomplish something,” says Adam Routh, a research associate for the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. He says that Trump’s deliberations about the moon are one manifestation of the cost-benefit analysis every president runs when it comes to defining and directing space policy for their term. “When you are trying to decide whether a space policy should pursue prestige over tangible returns … you need to evaluate the national cost vs. the return.

“The moon is certainly one of these geographic points that sits outside of Earth that is beneficial, if we want to put a colony there, harvest rare Earth minerals, or establish an off-Earth base for, say, advanced weapons systems,” says Routh.

ESA moon base
An artist's rendering of a moon base established by the European Space Agency, surely something Trump doesn't want to see before America does it first.

Internal White House documents published by Politico in February called for an explicit “rapid and affordable” return to the moon by 2020 that’s part of a bigger vision for the “large-scale economic development of space.” The first step behind this was a push by the administration to see whether Exploration Mission 1, a mission to launch the Orion deep-space vehicle to lunar orbit using the in-development Space Launch System, could be crewed. NASA and the White House ultimately ruled out such an endeavor, citing to high costs and too much of an increase in risk.

Trump ISS call
Trump speaks along with his daughter Ivanka Trump (R) and NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins, during a video conference with NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station in the Oval Office at the White House April 24.

Trump’s vision is to “see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for Americans on the Moon, by 2020 as well,” according to a summary of an “agency action plan” the president’s transition team drew up in January. Essentially, the moon becomes something of a fertile new ground for property development, mining operations for valuable resources, and an outpost for bigger scientific and technological development as well — especially at a time when other countries are decades away from capably traveling to and settling the moon.

Can You Make Money on the Moon?

But that raises the question — how is a business going to make money on the moon? And there’s no real answer to that. There are resources to mine from the moon, sure — but nothing that justifies the expensive trip to and from lunar space. It’s not an environment that easily lends itself to comfortable living. NASA believes orbital infrastructure around the moon will play a key role in helping humans get to Mars and beyond, but that’s not under the purview of the private sector.

Can the Moon Be Used in War?

So economics don’t seem like a great reason to go back to the moon. What about national security? The new administration has repeatedly mentioned a desire to increase the presence of militarized assets in space. As recently as April, Trump used a broadcast event by NASA — a civilian institution, mind you — to talk about the “tremendous military application in space.” Could the moon be key area for augmenting U.S. security interests? Maybe — but it’s totally unclear exactly what that would look like, or how that would even benefit the U.S. given that the rest of the world still lacks any achievement of a lunar excavation.

The moon landing

Oh, It’s Gotta Be Prestige

So that leaves only one more real reason to go back to the moon: prestige.

Consider the culture Trump and Pence grew up in. For older generations, the thought of space exploration is still inextricably tied to the Apollo missions of the 1960s and ‘70s. The launch of the rockets fiery blaze over Cape Canaveral on the way up through the atmosphere and out towards the moon, the fuzzed voices of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin declaring that they had set foot on the desolate lunar landscape — these things burn in the memories of anyone who remembers that historic moment for the human species. Moreover, it was an entirely American effort — a manifestation of the kind of prideful rhetoric U.S. politicians were used to expressing during the throes of the Cold War.

Trump and Pence, and most of the current White House administration, and its allies remember these images and sound bites. For most generations who were of age during the moon landing, the idea of human boots on the lunar surface was the pinnacle of human spaceflight. When Apollo 11 took off, Trump was 23 years old. Pence was 11. Space exploration was no bigger than that.

That leads us to Pence on Wednesday: at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the vice president greeted the newest class of the Astronaut Corps with a long speech that reminisced over the golden days of Apollo, when he “caught space fever as a little boy,” and watched NASA astronauts jet off into the sky with, he called it, “American leadership and American courage.”

He couldn’t help but tell the newbie astronauts that as part of their future work under NASA, “you may return to Moon.”

On the campaign trail, on Halloween, Mike Pence basically said a Trump administration would basically make space great again: “Donald Trump and I have a plan to make the American space program great again,” Pence told a crowd in at the Space Coast Convention Center in Cocoa, Florida, near Cape Canaveral.

But prestige alone cannot be an overriding justification for such a costly aims. It made sense during the Cold War, Routh says, when President John F. Kennedy’s plans were part of a “battle of ideologies.” Apollo wasn’t just a feat of human ingenuity — it was a quest fraught with political ramifications. Its high costs turned President Dwight D. Eisenhower off, but “Kennedy was ultimately correct,” says South. “The value of prestige was such that the cost was worth it.”

That’s not the case this time around. “There is an inherent value for the country and president to be prestigious in space still,” but the national environment is currently not as rewarding when it comes to prestige-oriented projects, says Routh. There need to be tangible benefits.

Trump and Pence may continue to push for a crewed lunar mission, or a sped up timeline for a trip to Mars, but unless they are willing to pony up the cash for the federal budget, they are unlikely to pursue such bold projects. The administration will continue to find ways to leverage the most prestige out of NASA, but as Routh puts it, “what that will look like is anyone’s guess.”

Photos via ESA, Getty Images / Pool, Washington Post