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Apollo 50 celebration
Crowds gathered on the National Mall for a show commemorating Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary. But that public interest doesn’t necessarily translate to the agency’s future plans in space exploration. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

And now, the next 50 years

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It was a sight that brought chills on even a muggy night. The National Mall was transformed into a unique outdoor theater to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Crowds gathered on a several-block stretch of the Mall, looking west towards the Washington Monument, which was converted into a projection screen that, thanks to the skill of the show’s producers, appeared perfectly suited to host full-sized images of the Saturn V on the pad and in flight. It was an event so unusual it literally required an act of Congress—a resolution that sped through the House and Senate quietly and without opposition, calling upon the Secretary of the Interior to allow such a commemoration—to be possible.

But the event on the National Mall, and others around the country, were largely celebrations of what America had done, not what it could do in the future. It was nostalgia, at potent as ever.

And the crowds loved it. Undaunted by the heat and humidity—or, even worse, downtown Washington traffic—they filled the Mall, some with blankets and chairs, and others simply sitting on the (fortunately dry) grass. They cheered when the Saturn V first appeared on the side of the monument, a half-hour before the start of the first of three 17-minute shows. They cheered when the rocket lifted off, and when the Eagle touched down on the surface of the Moon.

One might come away from the event thinking that Americans love space and space exploration. And, to some level, they do. But the event on the National Mall, and other events around the country, were largely celebrations of what America had done, not what it could do in the future. It was nostalgia, at potent as ever.

The future of space exploration is far less clear than the high-definition displays of the Saturn V on the Washington Monument. NASA, of course, has a plan for human space exploration: its Artemis program calls for returning humans to the Moon by 2024, followed by a “sustainable” series of missions there, all building up experience for going to Mars.

Unless, of course, the White House changes those plans. “To get to Mars, you have to land on the Moon, they say. Any way of going directly without landing on the Moon? Is that a possibility?” asked President Trump on Friday, appearing in the Oval Office with Vice President Pence, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, and Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins.

Bridenstine gave the agency’s standard explanation of why it was going to the Moon first. “Well, we need to use the Moon as a proving ground, because when we go to Mars, we’re going to have to be there for a long period of time, so we need to learn how to live and work on another world,” he said.

Trump, though, pressed the point, particularly after Collins chimed in he supported “Mars direct” (going directly to Mars, not necessarily the Mars Direct architecture) and Aldrin said he was “a little disappointed in the last 10 to 15 years,” in particular the fact that the Orion spacecraft, launched on the Space Launch System, can’t go into a low lunar orbit like the Apollo mission used.

“Well, I’d like to have you also listen to the other side because some people would like to do it a different way,” Trump told Bridenstine after the NASA administrator explained the agency’s approach of developing a lunar Gateway that can be used to stage lunar landing missions. “I mean, I know this has been going on for a little while. And we’re so advanced, but I would like to hear the other side also. Right?”

“Well, I’d like to have you also listen to the other side because some people would like to do it a different way,” Trump told Bridenstine.

Twenty-four hours later, Pence was at the Kennedy Space Center, along with several members of Congress and Aldrin (but not Collins, who remained behind in Washington) to mark the 50th anniversary of the landing. That “other side” of options other than NASA’s current program of record was nowhere in evidence.

“Standing before you today, I am proud to report, at the direction of the President of the United States of America, America will return to the Moon within the next five years,” Pence said. He used the speech to announce that that Orion spacecraft being built for the Artemis-1 uncrewed test flight was “complete,” in that the crew module was now attached to its service module.

Still, NASA has been emphasizing Mars in recent weeks, particularly since Trump’s tweet last month where he admonished NASA for talking about the Moon rather than Mars (see “An exploration shakeup”, The Space Review, July 15, 2019.) Bridenstine, in a call with reporters last Monday, said the agency was working on a “comprehensive plan” to enable human missions to Mars using technologies demonstrated on the Moon. “I am not willing to rule out 2033 at all” for a first human mission to Mars, he declared.

However, in a report prepared for Congress earlier this year, the Science and Technology Policy Institute concluded that a 2033 human mission to Mars, even one that just went into orbit, was not feasible using NASA’s “Exploration Campaign” approach. “We find that even without budget constraints, a Mars 2033 orbital mission cannot be realistically scheduled under NASA’s current and notional plan,” the report concluded.

Bridenstine, in the call, suggested not everyone agreed with that report’s conclusions, or the assumptions it used. “I think there are alternatives out there that enable” a Mars mission in 2033, he said. “I am not saying that’s on the agenda. What I am saying is that NASA is looking at, given the fact that we have accelerated our path to the Moon, how then does that accelerate our path to Mars? We’re looking at those trades and seeing what’s achievable.”

But whether NASA wants to send humans to the Moon and then Mars, or just Mars, there’s the question of cost. Bridenstine has said that the additional cost of returning humans to the Moon by 2024 could be less than the $20–30 billion range he previously offered, depending on the level of commercial contributions. But, he told senators last week at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, a formal budget projection for Artemis likely won’t be available until the administration releases its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal next February, more than six months away.

Bridenstine and others at NASA, though, have acknowledged that the $1.6 billion in additional funding requested for 2020 to start work on lunar landers and help development of SLS is only a down payment. Larger sums will be needed in 2021, 2022, and perhaps later years, depending on the phasing of various programs. Even if NASA secures that $1.6 billion in 2020, getting several billion more in 2021 and beyond—without taking money from other NASA programs—will be extremely difficult.

That’s because, despite the outpouring of interest in the Apollo anniversary, public support for human spaceflight is not that strong. A poll in May by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research asked the public to identify what it thought the top priorities for the space program should be. At the top, 68 percent of people said that monitoring asteroids and comets that could pose an impact threat was very or extremely important, followed by performing Earth and space science, at 59 percent. Nearing the bottom was sending astronauts to Mars (27 percent) and returning astronauts to the Moon (23 percent).

A similar poll, released by C-SPAN and Ipsos earlier this month, offered a similar assessment. Asked to select two top priorities for US space exploration, 52 percent selected Earth science while 32 percent chose improving national security. A human mission to Mars (18 percent) and a human return to the Moon (8 percent) were at the bottom.

If human space exploration is to succeed—at least as a taxpayer-funded endeavor in the United States—it will have to be able to fly under the radar.

So, those crowds wowed by the spectacle of Apollo may not be so eager to pay for a repeat (after all, they already paid for it a half-century ago, if they were even around.) Asking for billions of additional dollars to go back to the Moon is going to be a hard sell for a public not that interested in repeating the feat, especially if that funding comes at the expense of other programs.

Bridenstine was asked about the second poll in a C-SPAN interview. “In my view, Americans are very committed to space exploration,” he said. He pointed out that Apollo wasn’t a popular program when it was being carried out, based on opinion polls from that era. “But ultimately, when it was achieved, that monumental, stunning achievement was not only popular when it was complete, but it’s popular 50 years after it was complete. People love Apollo.”

People do love Apollo, as the popularity of the 50th anniversary events demonstrate. But Apollo was able to overcome a lack of popular support during its development for a variety of reasons—the Cold War, the desire to honor the wishes of a deceased president—that are unlikely, and undesirable, to be repeated. (A new space race with, say, China, while popularly talked about, seems improbable in large part because China appears in no hurry to send humans to the Moon.)

If human space exploration is to succeed—at least as a taxpayer-funded endeavor in the United States—it will have to be able to fly under the radar. A surge of public support won’t soon materialize, so efforts will have to find ways to keep out of the public line of fire. That may mean smaller budgets and stretched out schedules. That, as Bridenstine noted, carries political risks, but apparently so does a routine media opportunity in the Oval Office.

But if NASA can do that, it may find the public ready to celebrate its accomplishments, just as the public does today with its robotic missions to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system. In 2069, crowds may reassemble on the National Mall to mark the 100th anniversary of Apollo. What other anniversaries of human spaceflight achievements will they also commemorate? And how many people will join in the celebrations from the Moon and Mars, or elsewhere beyond Earth?

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