Ever since the Trump administration proposed adding $1.6 billion to the FY2020 NASA budget to bring the date of the next American moon landing to 2024, a lot of hand-wringing and cynicism has ensued.
One point of contention has been the fact that the White House proposes to tap Pell Grant surplus funds for the NASA money, as well as a number of other projects such as subsidies for the Special Olympics.
Despite the fact that no money being given to actual poor students who rely on Pell Grants to pay for college, the reaction has ranged from outrage to hysteria.
Another point of contention has been the fact that NASA has yet to reveal what the total cost for going to the moon will be.
The money is likely to be substantial, according to Ars Technica’s Eric Berger, who published a plan for Project Artemis, the new name for NASA’s return to the moon.
The plan envisions the first human moon landing in 2024 and one each year after that with the beginnings of a moon base happening in 2028.
So far that House has declined to shell out the extra money, with a NASA funding bill making its way that does not include the new plan or funding for it.
To be sure, the extra money could be tacked on later, as part of a supplemental bill or as an amendment to the current bill offered on the House floor.
In the meantime, prospects in the Senate, still controlled by Republicans, seem brighter.
One possible development that may make passing Artemis easier is a plan to raise the spending caps, thus making tapping Pell Grant surpluses or any other money unnecessary.
Such a deal would be bad for the deficit, but pretty good for space exploration.
Still, it might be a good idea to game out a scenario in which Congress does not fund Artemis, perhaps even cancelling the program before it gets off the ground.
Two attempts to return to the moon have failed because of bad politics.
The scenario becomes more likely if President Trump loses the 2020 election.
While the fight is being waged over NASA going back to the moon, two private companies have been quietly developing spacecraft that could take human beings to the lunar surface without the space agency.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin recently rolled out a mock-up of a lunar lander, which could be launched on its upcoming launch vehicle, the New Glenn.
In the meantime, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is building a new super rocket called the Starship in both Texas and Florida.
Both companies have or will soon have the financial wherewithal to conduct private lunar exploration programs. Bezos, thanks to Amazon.com, is the richest human on the planet. Musk will shortly start to deploy an internet satellite constellation called Starlink that will provide high speed Wi-Fi to every place on Earth and should make SpaceX a lot of money. Musk hopes to use the money to finance his Mars colonization project.
One can imagine under this scenario Musk deciding to use his super rocket to set up a refueling base at the moon’s south pole, using the ice deposits to make rocket fuel, thus furthering his Mars dream.
Bezos, who has a strong, personal dislike for Musk (a feeling that is mutual by the way) will have to respond.
Besides, access to lunar resources is key for the Amazon tycoon’s plans for building free floating space colonies.
People who are of a libertarian bent would not think this scenario to be a bug but a feature of cancelling Artemis.
House Democrats, on the other hand, would be quite appalled.
The idea of billionaires, unaccountable to any government, doing what they want on the moon would be the end of the world for liberals.
Then one has to consider what might happen when the Chinese, not known for respecting private business, finally arrive on the lunar surface.
If the House Democrats, still obsessed by their hatred of Trump and not very keen on spending money to explore space anyway, think things through, they will decide to fully fund NASA’s Artemis return to the moon program.
SpaceX and Blue Origin will be among the commercial partners.
But the space agency’s involvement would, at least in the view of House Democrats, provide a check on private business turning the moon into a version of the wild west.