Trump’s One Small Tweet Raises One Giant Question for NASA’s Moon Plans

For months the Trump administration has been proclaiming an Apollo-like urgency to return astronauts to the moon within five years. On Friday, President Trump appeared to suggest on Twitter that NASA was focusing on the wrong goal.

NASA did not respond to a request for comment about Mr. Trump’s tweet.

Aspects of the administration’s space policy have been widely praised, including a renewed focus on the moon, measures to reduce the danger of space debris to astronauts and satellites as well as a more entrepreneurial approach in big space projects. Many of these efforts have been formulated by the National Space Council, restored under Mr. Trump’s administration and led by Vice President Mike Pence.

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Mr. Pence announced in February a push to accelerate a landing by astronauts on the moon to 2024 from 2028. That drew criticisms that speedier pace was driven by politics — so that it would occur during Mr. Trump’s second term if he were re-elected — and not by technical or science considerations.

NASA officials have also not disclosed an estimate for how much an accelerated moon program would cost. In an updated budget request, they asked for an additional $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2020, which starts on Oct. 1.

Although Mr. Pence has been the moon return’s biggest cheerleader, Mr. Trump was supportive of the revised budget request when it was sent to Congress last month.

At a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council last week, William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that it was unlikely that appropriators in Congress would agree to provide all the money needed for a 2024 moon landing, and that the agency would likely have to cut the budgets for other areas of the space agency.

Mr. Trump’s tweet on Friday echoed the sentiments of President Obama, who canceled a return-to-the-moon program started by President George W. Bush.

In a speech in April 2010 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Buzz Aldrin, the second astronaut to walk on the moon, was in the audience, Mr. Obama said:

Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it’s more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach — and operate at — a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward.

While the parenthetical statement in Mr. Trump’s tweet seemed to state that the moon is part of Mars, he may have been referring to “Moon to Mars.” That’s NASA’s description of its current approach that aims to use technology developed during a moon landing for future missions to the red planet.

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