This Oval Office argument sums up NASA’s dilemma after Apollo

Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin have some thoughts on the space program.
Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin have some thoughts on the space program.
Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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President Donald Trump on Friday welcomed the two living members of the Apollo 11 crew to the White House, where they promptly set to dismantling US space policy.

Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins criticized NASA’s human spaceflight plans in front of the agency’s chief, Jim Bridenstine, in a scene that encapsulates the challenges facing the space program.

Starting with: Where to go next? Many scientists and engineers believe the moon is a target again thanks to the discovery of water ice, which could be a valuable resource, and the relative ease of reaching the Earth’s nearest neighbor. But now, under presidential direction, Mars is being emphasized.

“We don’t know what we’re going to find on Mars, but it certainly is going to be a trip that’s very interesting,” Trump began, in a conversation relayed by Wall Street Journal reporter Mike Bender, the White House press pool reporter in the room. “To get to Mars, you have to land on the moon, they say.”

That’s how NASA frames it. The moonwalkers disagreed.

Apollonian antagonists

Asked how to get to the red planet, Collins said he favored “Mars direct”—a concept endorsed by people ranging from SpaceX founder Elon Musk to Robert Zubrin’s Mars Society. Essentially, rather than following a stepping-stone approach, they’d like to see an ambitious Apollo-style lunge that leverages everything from nuclear reactors to resources on the surface of Mars itself.

Trump took a liking to the idea. As Aldrin egged the president on—”you’re impatient” with the current program, he suggested, nudging the president toward the potentially faster “Mars direct” plan—Trump asked Bridenstine, “who knows better than these people?”

Bridenstine outlined his concerns with the “Mars direct” idea, un-detailed in the pool report. They likely included the cost required to send people on a daunting six-month journey into deep space, and NASA’s long pre-launch to-do list, ranging from developing more efficient life support systems to a deeper understanding of how cosmic radiation affects humans.

The conversation continued on friendlier lines until Aldrin said a few words.

“Actually, I’ve been a little disappointed over the last 10 or 15 years,” the outspoken space elder statesmen declared, noting that NASA doesn’t have an operational spacecraft capable of going to the moon, or low-Earth orbit for that matter. It wouldn’t be the first time he expressed his concerns about the agency’s current direction.

“How do you feel about that, Jim?” Trump asked his NASA administrator.

“We’re working on it,” Bridenstine said, noting the development of a spacecraft called Orion.

It’s a tough spot for the embattled NASA chief, who was asked to set his sights on a return to the moon in 2024 by Vice President Mike Pence in March. That will require a significant investment, perhaps $20 to $30 billion over the next five years, and even then may be too difficult a deadline to reach.

Now, he’s being asked to explain when the agency is getting Mars.

Destination indecision

Last week, Bridenstine cleaned house at NASA to bring in new managers focused on the moon program, dubbed Artemis. But Trump’s goldfish attention span is one reason the previous leadership endorsed a moon, then Mars, scheme for human exploration. Hypothetically, the strategy can be adjusted to the ambition—the moon or Mars—of whatever president is in office.

That has kept the agency on the same track through George W. Bush’s “Apollo on steroids” in 2005, a shift towards Mars and the asteroid belt under president Barack Obama, then Moon 2024 in March, and now back to Mars.

This flexibility, however, also led to a space program that lacks urgency, which is one reason Bridenstine backs the Moon 2024 goal of the Artemis program. But Trump’s White House has done little to help him obtain the funding needed to make it a reality. One credible study recently concluded that getting to Mars by 2033 isn’t feasible, though Bridenstine said he disagreed earlier this week.

It’s possible Artemis could be launched as a flags-and-footprints mission like Apollo 11 by 2024, with big spending or significant changes. But a sustainable approach to the moon—the long-envisioned permanent presence there—will only come when there are explicit financial gains to attract private capital, NASA officials often say.

It’s clearly a concept that has broken through to the president, who crowed during the Oval Office meeting that “we’re having rich guys use it and pay us rent. I like that. I almost like that better, Jim, you want to know the truth. We don’t have to put up so much money. But you’ve been watching a lot of rich guys sending up rockets, and that goes to our credit. And it goes to their credit also.”

Companies like SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are eager to build out infrastructure for this space economy, accompanied by a host of smaller firms designing robotic spacecraft that will do the critical reconnaissance before any human mission touches down on the regolith. But, for now, these companies are a small part of NASA’s $50 billion-and-counting moon juggernaut.