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NASA’s Ever-Shifting Focus

Zack Lentz

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45 years ago, on December 11, 1972, the Apollo Program flew its last mission to the moon. The crew was made up of Commander Eugene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt. Harrison Schmitt is the only one of those astronauts is still alive, and he is now 82 years old. Currently there only 5 out of 12 astronauts left who have set foot on the moon, and the government is looking to increase the number of astronauts who have achieved that daring feat. The Trump administration aims to shift the focus of NASA’s human spaceflight from getting humans to Mars, which was the focus under the Obama administration, to getting us back to the Moon. NASA is expected to achieve this without extra funding from the United States government, or a permanent administrator. The acting administrator for NASA, Robert Lightfoot, when asked in an interview how NASA was planning to get back to the moon he responded, “We have no Idea.” Many people at NASA feel like they’re doing negative work as everytime a new president is elected they have to change their focuses on what they’re researching.

NASA was working on a capsule named Orion, which is designed to carry people further into space than ever before, with test missions scheduled for this year. The capsule will attach to a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which will act as a booster and small living quarters for the astronauts. This will allow Orion to make missions to asteroids, and eventually Mars, which could be reached by humans as soon as 2030. With the focus shifting away from mars, and onto the moon, NASA might have to suspend some its research on how to get humans to the red planet. Missions to the moon might be able to test the Orion capsule for its viability of having an orbital command capsule with a ladder going down to the surface of Mars. That would be the only upside of the mission though, as NASA doesn’t see any scientific reason to go back to the Moon. The proposal also states that the Trump administration expects NASA to send landers and other forms of transportation to or around the moon. NASA is not sure if it can complete preparations for this in such a short time frame. With most of their resources directed on the firmly on the path of getting humans to Mars, it will be a hard turnaround for them in such a short amount of time. With old rovers such as Spirit still moving many years after their expected lifetime, more and more important proof that liquid water might exist on the planet has been coming into view. A sudden turn around in budget would cripple any further efforts to investigate these finds, and getting new rovers and landers to the planet to continue looking once Spirit finally dies.

This shift in NASA’s focus will also encompass the reduction of resources that the United States will be giving to the International Space Station. By 2025 the government wants to stop all funding for the International Space Station entirely, and transfer the flying of astronauts to the station to private companies, such as SpaceX. These companies are not sure if they will be up to the task; however, this could prove to be a significant booster for commercial human spaceflight. One Congressman, Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson is against the move away from funding the international space station, saying this in a tweet: “If the administration plans to abruptly pull us out of the International Space Station in 2025, they’re going to have a fight on their hands. This would likely decimate FL’s commercial space industry and hinder our ability to experiment in low-Earth orbit.” Florida is no doubt a significant contributor to the space flight industry, using the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral to launch many of their missions into space, such as those to Mars in the early 2000s and many of the missions to the international space station. The Senator is right in his statement that it would decimate Florida’s commercial spaceflight industry, as companies like SpaceX are experimenting with using barges to launch and even land rockets from the ocean. This would end up making places like Kennedy Space Center obsolete over time.

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NASA’s Ever-Shifting Focus