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A Moon Landing In 2024? NASA Says It'll Happen; Others Say: No Way

Feb 7, 2020
Originally published on February 7, 2020 11:27 am

NASA is at a critical juncture in its push to get people back to the moon by 2024, with key decisions expected within weeks.

This effort to meet an ambitious deadline set by the Trump administration last year faces widespread skepticism in the aerospace community, even as the new head of human spaceflight at NASA insists that it can succeed.

No one has been to the moon since 1972, even though, back in 2004, then-President George W. Bush laid out several goals for NASA, including a "return to the moon by 2020 as the launching point for missions beyond."

A lot has happened in the intervening years, and former President Barack Obama had other priorities in space.

Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, mission commander, walks toward the Lunar Roving Vehicle during NASA's sixth and final Apollo lunar landing mission in December 1972.
Harrison H. Schmitt / Courtesy of NASA

In March of 2019, however, Vice President Pence announced that "it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years."

That would mean a remarkable speedup for NASA, which had been working toward a moon landing in 2028. In September, a member of Congress asked Ken Bowersox, who was the acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, how confident he was that the U. S. would have boots on the moon by this new, earlier deadline.

"How confident?" Bowersox replied. "I wouldn't bet my oldest child's upcoming birthday present or anything like that."

Soon after that hearing, however, NASA hired a new guy to lead human spaceflight: Doug Loverro. Loverro is more bullish.

"I see no reason why we can't make it," Loverro says. "I am highly confident we can make it."

Loverro is so conscious of the target date that he wears a little brass-colored lapel pin with a number on it. Every day, he changes the pin and its number, so that it counts down the days to the end of 2024. "To me, it means recognize the value of every day," Loverro says. "Every day we go ahead and can do something that puts us one step closer to the moon."

He currently has a review underway to assess the status of NASA's whole moon program and says the results are due on Feb. 14.

That review is looking at the big rocket NASA's been building, which is almost finished — although it's super expensive and years behind schedule. NASA's also got a new astronaut-carrying capsule that's undergoing testing.

For a moon mission, one critical piece of hardware is missing — a lander. NASA needs a spacecraft that can take people from lunar orbit down to the surface and back up.

"So that's the piece that right now is the focus of 'How do we make sure we create a lander that we can develop and get to the moon in the next five years?' " says Loverro, "or, in this case, in four years and 11 months."

NASA says contracts to build a lunar lander could be awarded in late February or March.

However, other space industry experts are doubtful that NASA can get to the moon so fast.

"I don't think that we'll have a man or a woman on the moon in 2024, and I don't know anyone who does," says Lori Garver, CEO of a nonprofit called Earthrise Alliance and a former deputy NASA administrator.

"The space community would love to get contracts to go back to the moon, and it doesn't really bother anyone that they would get those contracts saying that they could do it in 2024 and not make the deadline," Garver explains. "We haven't made deadlines with these major space programs since Apollo."

The Apollo moon landing of the 1960s took about eight years to achieve, but NASA basically wasn't doing anything else. Political leaders were united behind the moonshot, and the race with the Soviet Union drove the timing, the budget and the willingness to take risk.

"I don't believe that the risk that would be required to get someone back to the moon in five years is anything this nation is ready to do," says Garver, who notes that most people in the space community won't share their skepticism publicly.

"People don't want to acknowledge it, because most people are bought into the system and are making money off the system and this administration holds a grudge," she says. "It isn't a very popular thing to say, that the emperor has no clothes."

One retired NASA astronaut named Leroy Chiao, a former commander of the International Space Station, agrees that 2024 seems like a really long shot.

"My realistic assessment is that it is not likely," says Chiao, who notes that NASA has to deal with a lot of political considerations. "Why was 2024 chosen? Well, anyone can see that, with the election cycles and all that."

A moon landing in 2024 would mean a triumph during the last year of President Trump's second term, if he gets reelected in November.

Chiao says he feels bad for folks at NASA headquarters. He thinks they really want a moon landing and are doing everything they can.

"I don't think they're just blowing smoke necessarily. They've set things up so that there's a somewhat believable story that if the money shows up, they can do it if everything goes perfectly," Chiao says. "But we know from history that that doesn't usually happen."

After all, rockets can blow up. Technical tests can fail. And Congress controls the budgets. Not everyone there feels the same sense of urgency as the Trump administration. A NASA authorization bill just introduced into the House of Representatives would extend the moon landing deadline to 2028.

"I am more interested in maximizing the odds of success for this bold undertaking and making it as safe as any human journey into the deep space can be, than I am in having NASA meet arbitrary deadlines," Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson — a Democrat from Texas and the chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology — said at a recent hearing.

And if someone besides Trump wins in November, the new president will likely have his or her own feelings about returning people to the moon.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

NASA is shooting for the moon, and they're doing it on deadline. Here's Vice President Mike Pence making the announcement last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: But is getting back to the moon by 2024 even possible? NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: No one has been to the moon since 1972. But it's not like NASA hasn't wanted to go back, they've even been told to do it. Sixteen years ago, then-President George W. Bush laid out a bunch of goals for NASA, like completing the International Space Station and retiring the space shuttle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: Our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020 as the launching point for missions beyond.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In case you haven't noticed, it's now 2020. A lot has happened in the intervening years. President Obama had other priorities in space. The current administration wants people on the moon in 2024. How realistic is that? In September, a member of Congress put that question to Ken Bowersox, who was acting head of human spaceflight at NASA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL POSEY: How confident are you that we'll have boots on the moon by 2024?

KEN BOWERSOX: How confident? Well, I wouldn't bet my oldest child's upcoming birthday present or anything like that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, he was just the acting head of human exploration. Soon after that meeting, NASA hired a new guy, Doug Loverro. And Loverro is more bullish.

DOUG LOVERRO: I see no reason why we can't make it. I am highly confident we can make it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When we met at NASA headquarters, he was wearing a little brass-colored lapel pin with a number on it - 1,799. Every day, he changes the pin so that it counts down the days to the end of 2024.

LOVERRO: To me, it means recognize the value of every day.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's got a review underway to assess NASA's whole moon program. That review is due in about a week. It'll look at the big rocket NASA's been building, which is almost finished, although it's super expensive and years behind schedule.

NASA's also got a new astronaut-carrying capsule. It's undergoing testing. Loverro says, for a moon mission, one critical piece of hardware is missing, a lander - a spacecraft that can take people from lunar orbit down to the surface and back up.

LOVERRO: So that's the piece that right now is the focus of, how do we make sure we create a lander that we can develop and get to the moon in the next five years? That's - well, in this case, four years...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Four years.

LOVERRO: ...Four years and 11 months.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You got four years.

LOVERRO: And 11 months.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA says contracts to build a lunar lander could be awarded in late February or March. So does the aerospace community really think this fast-paced moonshot is doable?

LORI GARVER: Oh, I don't think we will have a man or woman on the moon in 2024, and I don't know anyone who does.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lori Garver is a former deputy NASA administrator.

GARVER: The space community would love to get contracts to go back to the moon. And it doesn't really bother anyone that they would get those contracts saying they could do it in 2024 and not make the deadline. We haven't made deadlines with these major space programs since Apollo.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Rockets blow up, tests fail. The Apollo moonshot of the 1960s took about eight years, but it was basically all NASA was doing. Political leaders were united behind it. The race with the Soviet Union drove the timing, the budget and the willingness to take risks.

GARVER: And I don't believe that the risk that would be required to get someone back to the moon in five years is anything this nation is ready to do.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says most people in the space community won't say that publicly.

GARVER: People don't want to acknowledge it because most people are bought into the system and are making money off the system. And this administration holds a grudge, so it isn't a very popular thing to say that the emperor has no clothes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I asked one retired NASA astronaut, Leroy Chiao, what he thought about a 2024 moon landing.

LEROY CHIAO: You know, my realistic assessment is that it's not likely.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Chiao served as commander of the International Space Station. He says NASA has to deal with a lot of political considerations.

CHIAO: Why was 2024 chosen? Well, everybody can see that, you know, with the election cycles and all that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A moon landing in 2024 would mean a triumph during the last year of President Trump's second term if he gets reelected in November. Chiao feels bad for folks at NASA headquarters. He says they really want a moon landing and are doing everything they can.

CHIAO: I don't think they're just blowing smoke, necessarily. They've set things up so that there's a somewhat believable story that if the money shows up, they can - you know, they can do it if everything goes perfectly. But we know from history that that doesn't usually happen.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Congress controls the money, and not everyone there feels the same sense of urgency as the Trump administration. Eddie Bernice Johnson is a Democrat from Texas who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON: I am more interested in maximizing the odds of success for this bold undertaking and making it as safe as any human journey into the deep space can be than I am in having NASA meet arbitrary deadlines.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A NASA authorization bill just introduced into the House of Representatives would extend the moon landing deadline to 2028. And if someone besides President Trump wins in November, the new president will likely have his or her own feelings about a return to the moon.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.