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22nd of February 2018

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Trump wants NASA astronauts back on the moon, but it won't happen while he's in office

NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon in 1969.NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon in 1969.Image: nasa2017%2f12%2f04%2f7d%2fmarkpic.c6031By Mark Kaufman2018-02-12 22:17:48 UTC

The Trump administration is serious about sending robots and spacecraft back to the moon — although no NASA astronaut will set foot on the chalky lunar surface until after President Trump leaves office. 

The White House released its Fiscal Year 2019 NASA budget proposal on Monday, and it confirmed the administration's plans to prioritize space exploration while stepping away from supporting the International Space Station, which houses astronauts and science experiments in low-Earth orbit. 

"It reflects the administration's confidence that America will lead the way back to the moon," said NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, while detailing the budget proposal Monday afternoon from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. 

In total, the Trump administration requested $19.6 billion from Congress for 2019. This is $500 million more than what was budgeted in 2018, but $61 million less than what Congress provided in 2017, under the Obama administration. 

The 2019 budget proposal is dominated by space exploration, with over $10 billion allocated to deep space endeavors, including a specific emphasis to "pursue a campaign that would establish U.S. preeminence to, around, and on the Moon."

These lunar investments include building a "power and propulsion space tug" (whose cost and details remain unclear), a fleet of robotic moon rovers and landers, and a new technology program to engineer cheaper ways to get to the moon, and beyond.

NASA's forthcoming mega-rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), also looms large in the budget. This is the rocket NASA will use to launch the Orion spacecraft, which is currently in development, to the moon and Mars. This hugely expensive program — which unlike SpaceX rockets, has no reusable parts — would receive $3.7 billion, close to 20 percent of NASA's entire budget.

An artist's rendering of NASA's Space Launch System rocket taking flight.

An artist's rendering of NASA's Space Launch System rocket taking flight.

Image: NASA

But even if all goes as planned with NASA's re-commitment to its lunar ambitions (NASA quit funding trips to the moon in 1972), NASA astronauts won't circle around the moon in the Orion spacecraft until 2023. So even if Trump is elected to a second  term in 2020, astronauts won't actually visit the lunar surface until a new president has taken office.

A casualty of NASA's redirection of funds toward lunar exploration, however, is its direct support of the International Space Station, which the Trump administration wants to cut funding to in 2024. 

Acting director Lightfoot said the budget includes $150 million to begin "ramping up" efforts to encourage commercial partners — like SpaceX and Orbital ATK — to take over U.S. space and science operations occurring in low-Earth orbit. Lightfoot noted this could mean a continued support of the Space Station or developing "stand-alone platforms" — presumably a new orbiting station developed and maintained by a private company.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft connecting to the International Space Station in 2013.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft connecting to the International Space Station in 2013.

Image: nasa

The budget proposal also includes more immediate eliminations of entire programs, some of which Congress refused to get rid of last year. 

“We did have to make some tough decisions in science," Lightfoot said. 

He specifically cited a cut in funding for the $3 billion WFIRST space telescope, which would have, according to NASA, helped "settle essential questions in the areas of dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics."

Also eliminated would be five Earth-science satellites set to study or continue studying the Earth's oceans, carbon emissions, and other areas. This would cut $133 million from the budget. One of these Earth-observing satellites, known as DISCOVR, is already in orbit, and the budget cuts funding for one of its sensors.

Another proposed cut that Congress has previously rejected concerns NASA's Office of Education. At $100 million dollars this office would make up half of a percent of the budget, but the Trump administration proposes it be completely eliminated. This department offers grants to colleges, provides direct education in grammar school settings, and is generally designed to get kids interested in space and engineering sciences. 

Making a notable appearance in the budget, however, is a technology that won't leave Earth's atmosphere: Supersonic aircraft. NASA hopes to fund an "X-Plane" that can travel faster than the speed of sound while not rumbling the cities and towns below with sonic booms. If funded, this high-speed prototype would take flight in 2021, and according to the White House, would cut cross-country flight times in half. 

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