NASA Budget Means a Return to the Moon and a 'Command Module' in Space

"We need a permanent command and service module in orbit around the Moon."

President Donald Trump has submitted his proposed 2020 NASA budget and one message is very clear: The American space priority is a human presence on the Moon and one that is established fast.

Speaking from the Kennedy Space Center on Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine introduced the “Moon to Mars” budget proposal — the first step in an annual process that specifies the agency’s funding. It ends with legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President. For 2020, Trump has proposed $21 billion in funding, a nearly six percent increase from the 2019 request.

While it’s intended for the funding to go a variety of space science and aeronautics initiatives, the focus of the proposal links back to Space Policy Directive 1 — a 2017 directive from Trump, requesting that NASA makes its core mission sending Americans back to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

“Space policy Directive 1 is not just about delivering small payloads to the surface of the Moon, it’s about much more than that,” Bridenstine announced. “It’s about having a sustainable human presence on and around the Moon. In order to achieve that objective, we need a permanent command and service module in orbit around the Moon. We call it Gateway.”

The Lunar Gateway

Approximately $10.7 billion of the intended $21 billion is ordered to be used towards building the key components necessary for sending astronauts to the Moon. One of those components is the Lunary Gateway — an orbiting outpost that will extend human presence in deep space. The first elements of Gateway are intended to be launched no later than 2022, with the goal of human habitation beginning in 2024. These astronauts will be able to live on Gateway — 250,000 miles away from Earth — as well as shuttle back and forth to the Moon to conduct experiments.

Lunar Gateway
An artist rendering of the Lunar Gateway.

“What Gateway represents is an opportunity, not just to go to the Moon over and over again in sustainable architecture, but an opportunity to examine more parts of the Moon than ever before,” Bridenstine says. “Friends, there’s a whole lot about the Moon that we don’t know yet.”

However, the more important implication attached to the Gateway experiment, explains Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society, is what it tells us about humans living in deep space. Drier, the Chief Advocate and Senior Space Policy Adviser at the Bill Nye-helmed planetary science nonprofit, tells Inverse that, fundamentally “the Planetary Society believes that Mars is where humans should go.” So in turn, it supports the steps that will aid that mission.

“If Mars is really the goal, every decision that NASA makes in terms of programs to design, spacecrafts to build, and mission profiles to pursue on and around the Moon — every one of those should have a clear feedback into how this is going to help us get to Mars,” Drier says. “We’re still in the process of figuring out that feedback, but I think Gateway has the potential to address that because it gets humans into deep space.”

The Moon orbits in deep space and it’s existing in deep space that we’ll have to master before knowing how to successfully live on Mars. Humans, Drier explains, have basically been stuck in low Earth orbit for the past 46 years — that’s the area 99 to 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface and where you can find the International Space Station. We know from astronauts like Scott Kelly how living in low Earth orbit affects the body. What we don’t know is how deep space will affect the health of space pioneers.

The Moon is the focus of the newly proposed NASA budget.

“Living in deep space isn’t as easy as living on the ISS,” Drier says. “You can’t resupply as often, there’s a longer delay when communicating to the ground. You have a completely different radiation environment; physiological environment. Gateway is a really good way to start practicing how to live in deep space without committing too many resources to lunar specific hardware.”

He explains that he’s heard it like this: We don’t want to get “stuck in a lunar cul de sac in terms of technology.” Ideally, our Moon accomplishments are a stepping stone towards Mars. Bridenstine echoes this message with his emphasis on sustainability: The spacecraft that NASA is building to take astronauts to Gateway, the Orion, is designed to have some components that are reusable. The solar propulsion system designed to navigate Gateway is intended to make the module self-sustainable.

What’s not reusable is the massive rocket that’s intended to launch the Orion to Gateway — the Space Launch System (SLS). SLS, says NASA, is the “only rocket that . can send Orion, astronauts, and large cargo to the Moon on a single mission.” It’s also very, very large. 

“We’re talking about a rocket that’s bigger than any rocket that’s ever been built in human history,” Bridenstine says. “Taller than the Statue of Liberty.”

Now it’s on Congress to decide whether it’s accept or reject the president’s NASA budget — if legislation isn’t passed by Congress and signed by the President before the fiscal year starts in October, NASA can lose its authority to spend any of that money. Drier says the budget could be better — this is a $21 billion proposal, but Congress provided $21.5 billion in 2019, more than Trump proposed. The Planetary Society lobbies for a five percent annual increase; Congress on average has increased NASA’s budget by four percent per year since 2014.

“While this budget proposal is an improvement, it’s still less than what we can do,” Drier says. “We don’t want to regress; we need to keep pushing forward if we are to succeed in the 2020s. Which is really the question right now: What kind of decade are we setting up?”

It could be a decade with Gateway: NASA hopes that the first element to launch will be its power and propulsion element in 2022. Each year after that, astronauts will travel to Gateway with new modules, until its fully assembled in 2026.