President Donald Trump today signed a space policy directive that calls on NASA to establish an outpost on the moon and send astronauts onward to Mars and beyond, but leaves the “how” and the “how much” for later.
Trump invoked the legacy of the Apollo space program during the Oval Office signing ceremony. And to emphasize that connection, the White House brought in Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the former senator and astronaut who was part of the last Apollo mission in 1972.
“Today, we pledge that he will not be the last, and I suspect we’ll be finding other places to land in addition to the moon,” Trump said. “What do you think, Jack?”
“Yes, we should,” Schmitt replied. “Learn from the moon.”
The memorandum known as Space Policy Directive 1 codifies the moon as NASA’s next big target for human spaceflight. That policy reverses President Barack Obama’s 2010 decision to focus on visiting a near-Earth asteroid, and is more in line with the back-to-the-moon vision that President George W. Bush laid out in 2004.
Trump emphasized that 21st-century moonshots would be more ambitious than the Apollo 17 landing that Schmitt took part in exactly 45 years ago today.
“This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints,” the president said. “We will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday to many worlds beyond.”
Among those in attendance were Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Christina Koch, and a bevy of lawmakers, officials and industry executives.
Before signing the directive, Trump briefly shared the spotlight with Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the administration’s National Space Council. Pence praised the policy and told Trump that by signing the directive, “you are ensuring that America will lead in space once again.”
However, lots of gaps remain to be filled in. Trump’s choice for NASA administrator, U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Instead, acting administrator Robert Lightfoot represented the agency’s leadership at today’s signing.
NASA has not yet laid out a plan for returning Americans to the lunar surface. Instead, it’s been focusing on a “Deep Space Gateway” that could host astronauts in lunar orbit and serve as a platform for missions to Mars.
The Trump administration isn’t expected to lay out a budget plan to back up its policy initiative until next year. Costs associated with beyond-Earth-orbit exploration have been the downfall for previous space exploration plans, including Obama’s and Bush’s visions.
During today’s ceremony, Trump put extra emphasis on the space effort’s implications for the economy and the military. “Space has so much to do with so many other applications, including a military application,” he said. “So we are the leader, and we’re going to stay the leader, and we’re going to increase it many-fold.”
As he sat down to sign the directive, the president made sure to cover the employment angle as well: “This is very exciting, and very important for our country, and it also happens to mean jobs. Jobs! And we love jobs, too, right?” he said.
The policy received positive reviews from industry groups such as the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
“The U.S. commercial space industry has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in private capital to develop innovative capabilities for lunar transport, operations and resource utilization, leading to many lower-cost innovative approaches that can benefit this new era of lunar exploration,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in a statement.
Stallmer said the White House should direct NASA to “leverage these capabilities to generate greater efficiency and quicker solutions, and to partner with industry through flexible, innovative contracting approaches, to accelerate progress toward achieving the goals set out in Space Policy Directive 1.”
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, hailed the directive as well. “This administration’s dedication to space is a refreshing change from the past eight years,” Smith said in a statement.
Not everyone, however, was impressed by the policy’s rollout.
“JFK called for reaching for the moon in a resounding speech before a joint session of Congress,” Robert Zubrin, founder and president of the nonprofit Mars Society, said in a tweet. “Trump mumbles his way through a reading of a signing statement for his putative moon program in a private ceremony at the White House. … How we have fallen.”