Bloomberg reports that during his recent state visit to Japan, President Donald Trump concluded an agreement with that country’s government making it a full partner in NASA’s Project Artemis return to the moon program.
Trump was very ebullient when he announced the agreement during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.
“Japan will join our mission to send U.S. astronauts to space. We’ll be going to the moon, we’ll be going to Mars very, very soon. It’s very exciting. From a military standpoint, there is nothing more important right now than space.”
Trump’s announcement brought out the snark in some places in the media. AP noted, “Not very soon. The U.S. will almost certainly not be sending humans to Mars in his presidency, even if he wins a second term.”
The so-called “fact check” is technically true but also does not, strictly speaking, contradict what the president said.
He did not mention astronauts to Mars and “very soon” could mean by 2033, which is the year NASA envisions, if one measures the time against the scale of how long people have dreamed of sending humans to Mars. Next year, NASA intends to send a huge, car sized rover called Mars 2020 to the Red Planet.
At the moment, NASA is concentrating on Artemis, the plan to send humans back to the lunar surface. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the year of the next moon landing had been advanced from 2028 to 2024.
The reason is two-fold. The earlier deadline will concentrate the efforts of NASA and commercial engineers in order to avoid the space ADD that has afflicted more leisurely efforts. Two previous attempts to return to the moon, both mounted by presidents named George Bush, were unceremoniously cancelled by their Democratic successors.
The other reason is to impress upon China, an American adversary, that their plans to dominate the moon will not work. Beijing is embarked on an effort to supplant the United States as the sole super power on Earth. Going to the moon, establishing a base there, and exploiting its resources is a key part of that plan.
Under the NASA plan, the “first woman and the next man” would walk on the moon in 2024, not coincidentally the last year or a prospective Trump second term.
Each year would see a moon landing until a permanent lunar base would start taking shape in 2028. The base would in short order become a center of science and commerce and, in the fullness of time, a refueling station for expeditions to Mars and beyond.
The accelerated effort is going to take more funding, $1.6 billion in FY2020 alone and much more to follow. House Democrats are so far resisting the new schedule, mostly out of partisan spite.
However, NASA has good hopes of eventually getting the extra funding. NASA Administrator Jim Bidenstine used to be a member of Congress and has personal relationships with many of the space policy players in both the House and the Senate.
In the meantime, forging international partnerships is an integral part of Artemis.
NASA already has an agreement with Canada. The European Space Agency has provided a service module for the Orion deep space vehicle.
Japan is the latest country that has been added to the deep space coalition of the willing. More countries will be added in due course.
The international component of Artemis will help with cost sharing, access expertise beyond the United States, and will help create what diplomats call “soft power” by making America the leader of the greatest space project since the Apollo program.
The model of international space cooperation has already succeeded in the building and operation of the International Space Station. Even a country such as Russia, not currently the best friend and ally of the United States, has been able to work smoothly with the other partners to keep the orbiting laboratory churning out scientific discoveries and technological innovations.
Also, commercial partnerships will be part of the plan to transform Artemis from a dream to a reality. Large companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing and smaller ones such as Moon Express and Astrobotic will build and operate hardware such as lunar landers.
If the money is made available and the various space agencies and private companies perform, the next few decades could see a new birth of deep space exploration and the spread of human presence beyond the Earth.