NASA’s Many Troubles Trying to Get Back to the Moon

Buzz Aldrin on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. (NASA)

The 50th anniversary of the moon landing is almost here, and NASA has gone all-out for the occasion.

The agency has been celebrating the memory of Apollo 11 for months. It has published a steady stream of archival photos and footage of the astronauts suiting up, blasting off, and posing on the lunar surface with the American flag, a pop of color against an expanse of gray. It refurbished the room at the Johnson Space Center where Mission Control monitored the journey so that now it looks the way it did in 1969, down to the coffee cups, clipboards, and packs of cigarettes. NASA headquarters even asked every communications officer at the agency to be “mindful of posting evergreen materials during the next few weeks that could get better attention once we’re past that spotlight event,” a spokesperson told me. Apollo 11 is NASA’s most famous mission, and the moon landing is one of the most defining moments in human history. It’s been moon time, all the time.

But behind the celebrations, the atmosphere was less harmonious. As NASA commemorated one mission to the moon, the future of the next one seemed precarious.

The Trump administration wants to return Americans to the moon, a place they haven’t been since 1972, in five years—during President Donald Trump’s second term, if he is reelected. Right now, the agency doesn’t have the money to make it happen. In May, the White House asked Congress for an extra $1.6 billion in NASA’s next budget to start funding this effort, which would cost $20 billion to $30 billion and, unlike the Apollo program, rely heavily on technology bought from private companies. Astronauts would land near the south pole this time, where they could theoretically make use of water frozen in the surface. And the crew would include, for the first time, a woman. A mission to Mars—the focal objective of the Obama administration—will come later, after astronauts show they can safely live and work on the moon.

As Congress figures out funding for the next year, NASA officials have spent the past several months talking up the new mission—named Artemis, after Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology. As with the Apollo-anniversary coverage, everyone seemed to be on message. Until, that is, the person who ordered the mission strayed.

“For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago,” President Trump tweeted in June. “They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part).”

The tweet stunned the NASA community. Trump has been enamored of the Mars-mission idea since he took office, and once asked a NASA official whether the agency could put people on the red planet by the end of his first term. But that conversation unfolded in private and was only revealed in a tell-all book by a former White House official. In contrast, there was no denying the blustery Mars tweet, nor the blatant contradictions in its message.

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SOURCE: The Atlantic, Marina Koren