Skip to Content
MIT Technology Review

We need to shield the US space program from election cycle chaos

In just over 10 years, NASA has gone from planning moon missions to Mars missions to moon missions again. It needs political security to go anywhere.

October 5, 2020
trump and pences watch launchtrump and pences watch launch
President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Second Lady Karen Pence watch the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
NASA/Bill Ingalls

Space exploration is a long-term endeavor. It takes many years and boatloads of money to get a single spacecraft off the ground and out of Earth's atmosphere. Getting it to destinations outside the planet’s orbit is even trickier. And if the plan is to send humans along for the ride, you can expect development to take longer than most US presidential terms.

That's a problem, given that the executive office is in charge of shaping the US space program and its overall goals: when different administrations have different ideas on what to prioritize, the space program faces whiplash that creates chaos and slows projects down. In just this century, NASA has seen its focus shift from the moon to Mars and back to the moon. In 2005, President Bush said we were gearing up to go to the moon with the Constellation program. In 2010, President Obama said we were headed to Mars. In 2017, President Trump decided it was actually the moon again.

With less than a month to go until an election that could lead to a new administration under Joe Biden, the space community is bracing itself for yet another possible pivot. The circumstances once again highlight the need to stabilize the US space program so it has the support it needs to pursue projects and achieve goals, secure that they won’t be abruptly upended by the whims of a new president. 

The next four years are critical. Under Artemis, NASA’s program to return humans to the moon, we’re seeing the development of technologies like lunar spacesuits, lunar habitation modules, landers, rovers, Gateway (a lunar space station designed to enable human exploration in deep space), and tons of other new technologies meant to make moon missions work. Only some would be immediately suitable for a Martian environment, and others that are adaptable would need time to redevelop and test. A new shift would be a disruption worse than any NASA has faced in recent memory.

The Biden campaign has released almost no details about space policies—hardly a surprise given all the calamities affecting the country at the moment. "So we're completely left to speculate here," says Casey Dreier, a space policy expert with the Planetary Society. "Nothing is technically off the table." 

Biden was vice president under Obama, so one might reason he'd want to see NASA shift its focus back to Mars. But the Democratic Party platform released during the party’s convention in August stated: "We support NASA's work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars, taking the next step in exploring our solar system."

With this explicit endorsement for a crewed mission to the moon, it seems highly unlikely that a Biden administration would cancel Artemis. And at this point, it might not be able to even if it wanted. "A lot of hard work has been done to build a coalition and orient NASA toward this goal," says Dreier. When Bush's Constellation program was nixed, it was still in a very early stage of development, marred by many technical and logistical problems. With Artemis "you don’t have a ton of similar problems," says Dreier. The Orion deep-space capsule and the Space Launch System (the biggest rocket ever to be built by humans) originated under the Obama-era Journey to Mars program, but they are much more mature in their development at this point, and they fit neatly into a lunar exploration program.

Still, that doesn't mean Artemis would stay totally intact under Joe Biden. The 2024 deadline to return to the moon seems very unrealistic for even the most vocal lunar exploration advocates. SLS is still unfinished. Gateway won’t be ready for human habitation until after 2024. NASA still doesn’t know what lander would actually ferry its astronauts to the lunar surface, with several different companies vying to have their proposed concepts selected. The winner would have less than four years to build and prepare the technology for a 2024 moon landing. 

What we might see from a Biden administration is not so much a shift away from the moon as a decision to push the timeline back a few years, with a more specific eye toward Mars later on. The Democratic leadership for the House Science Committee wanted to propose exactly that. In January the committee put forward a bill for the 2020 NASA Authorization Act that would reschedule an Artemis crewed landing for no later than 2028. It would direct NASA to develop its own lunar lander instead of using one built and developed privately, and would require the lander to run through at least two flight tests before being used for a human mission, putting NASA back into a classic aerospace development process and limiting the role of public-private partnerships for Artemis. It would also call for a less extensive exploration program, deemphasizing activities like lunar resource mining in favor of activities that would enable missions to Mars. The bill calls for NASA to follow up with a crewed Mars orbit mission as early as 2033. 

"Let me be crystal clear: this bill is not about rejecting the Artemis program or delaying humans on the moon until 2028," Congresswoman Kendra Horn, chair of the subcommittee and lead sponsor of the bill, said in January. "NASA can still work to safely get there sooner." Horn was arguing for a more "fiscally responsible approach" to getting NASA back to the moon given the lack of many specific details that are needed for a crewed landing. She also sought to provide more specific wording tying a lunar exploration program to a bigger effort to make a Mars journey possible. 

The bill is not without criticism, especially since it doesn’t really put forward any new funding to explicitly enable a Mars mission so soon after a 2028 lunar landing. 

"After years of me and so many others urging NASA to get out of [low Earth orbit] and go back to the moon and this time to stay, it would be too much to bear to now watch at close range it being ruined by a Mars fantasy, probably while other nations make a lunar land rush," former NASA engineer and current National Space Council User Advisory Group member Homer Hickam commented online in January. And NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has raised concerns that shrinking the role of public-private partnerships would restrict the sort of flexibility that could actually allow NASA to find technologies necessary for returning to the moon and going to Mars. 

In spite of those disagreements, the bill shows that "fundamentally, the moon seems to be accepted by both Democratic and Republican apparatuses for being a step toward Mars," Dreier says. For a couple of years after Trump was elected, there was a sense that Mars was a Democratic destination and the moon was a Republican one. Being pro-Mars or pro-moon felt like a partisan issue.

That’s not the case anymore. "I’ve been surprised at how quickly the moon became accepted by even pro-Mars folks," says Dreier. "It may have been an acknowledgment of the political realities." Many now seem to concede that Obama's ambitious direct-to-Mars plan was inadequately prepared or funded. A moon program can build momentum that could be applied later to Mars.

As usual, money is the issue. The lack of secure, long-term funding means NASA has never been able to plan well in advance how to run a proposed program for deep-space exploration. "The policy decision on how much money to give to the space program has been inconsistent with the ambitions stated for the space program," says John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University. "We’ve consistently underfunded our space goals. What we've been wanting to do since Apollo, in my view, is wanting a program that we're not willing to pay for." 

But the solution isn’t rocket science. "The trick is to get everybody to recognize what the overarching long-term goals are, and think about what programs contribute to those," says James Vedda, a policy analyst at the Aerospace Corporation. "If you agree on what the endgame should be, that will bring more stability to the US space program."

NASA’s budget is subject to instability year after year, in spite of the fact that its programs require several years’ worth of work. "Even five years is short-term," says Vedda. Creating multi-year appropriations that provide funding for more than just a single fiscal year could help those programs survive changes in government. To keep Congress from feeling overwhelmed, Vedda suggests splitting NASA's budget between year-to-year items checked annually, and long-term programs that are revisited once every two years or so.

There have been numerous proposals over the decades to make reforms like these. "And they always get shot down," says Vedda. People in Congress, he says, are afraid of losing control and oversight of the agency through multi-year budgets. As a result, NASA personnel are left in a precarious situation of figuring out how to make programs like Artemis work without proper financial and political security.

Whether it's Biden or Trump in the White House next year, neither the moon nor Mars will be achievable anytime soon unless the US space program is firmly insulated from partisan debates and changing administrations. "Of course the space community would love that—wouldn’t anybody," says Logsdon. “But that's not the way the system works." Not yet, anyway.