On Monday, President Donald Trump signed “Space Policy Directive 1,” which orders NASA to facilitate getting humans to the moon and eventually, Mars. But if the president thinks that’s going to happen under his tenure, he’s almost certainly mistaken, a former chief scientist at NASA tells Inverse.
While Trump certainly seemed keen on putting Americans on the moon and beyond, he offered no timeline or strategies on how to do that. He did, however, wax poetic about militarizing space — because, you know, priorities.
“This is a giant step toward [an] inspiring future and toward reclaiming America’s proud destiny in space,” Trump said. “And space has so much to do with so many other applications, including a military application. So we are the leader and we’re going to stay the leader and we’re going to increase it manyfold.”
If we assume the subtext here is that this should all happen while Trump is in office, Mark Shelhamer, former chief scientist at NASA’s human research program, has some bad news.
“[The] short answer is no, I don’t think it can be done in four years,” Shelhamer tells Inverse. “Maybe eight. The Orion capsule can do the moon mission, and NASA is working on a Deep Space Gateway that would permit longer missions in and around the moon — like a mini-ISS for lunar flights. But neither of these are yet finished. Even more than that — where’s the rocket?”
One of the glaring issues with Trump’s ambiguous space ambitions is that NASA — the agency that’s supposed to be making his pipe dreams come true — is in a bit of a pickle right now, partly because of him. For one thing, it still doesn’t have an official administrator. Robert Lightfoot has served as the acting admin longer than anyone else has in the agency’s history, and Trump has still not confirmed a new leader for the role, even though he’s thrown his support behind Republican Representative Jim Bridenstine. Instability at NASA doesn’t help anyone get to space faster.
Another major setback is NASA’s long-delayed Space Launch System (SLS) program, which has been pushed several times since 2016. The SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft have yet to make their maiden voyage, and it’ll be a major time crunch to lauch uncrewed mission in the next four years. NASA has considered making the maiden mission a crewed one, but that raises obvious safety concerns.
“Development of NASA’s SLS has been painfully slow and there’s no indication that that will suddenly improve,” Shelhamer says. “And it’s not clear that it will work the first time. SpaceX has big plans for a rocket as well — the BFR — but again these things are not easy and scaling up rockets to the size needed to send something meaningful to the moon is a challenge.”
Perhaps the biggest issue with Trump’s push for human exploration in space is that his fervor — however misguided — isn’t enough to drive innovation.
“Apollo was a crash program driven by the Cold War,” Shelhamer said. “It accomplished amazing things, amazingly fast, but afterwards it left little infrastructure for continued human flights and we shifted to the Space Shuttle. The pace of Apollo wasn’t sustainable. So I wouldn’t want to see another crash program like that…we need something long-term and sustainable.”
Several presidents have wanted to send Americans back to the moon, and Trump is no exception. But doing something just because you want to is different than doing it for scientific value, and at this point, the president is inarguably fixated on the former.