NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday, and when he launched into a session on space policy, he did not disappoint. During his introductory remarks, he hit every point on the space exploration agenda: geology, aerospace, asteroid mining and so on. It’s no wonder that President Trump ended up picking him for the position.
But let’s take it step by step. Of the five goals established for NASA by President Trump, three have already been achieved. First, to return people to the moon and to establish it as a staging ground for permanent manned space exploration. In recent years, NASA has built and tested a lunar lander, a lunar orbiting habitat and a landing craft. On April 11, we launched our first lunar sample-return mission in history.
Next, the agency’s overall planetary science program has improved dramatically, particularly as Bridenstine’s new star systems program takes off. His Hubble telescope program is attracting major interest from scientists, and a new program to look deep into our solar system has been announced.
The other two goals – sending humans to Mars and building a heavy-lift rocket that will carry us to the moon or beyond — have yet to be achieved. The Mars program has stalled. China is trying to take the initiative in rocketry, which is unsettling some of NASA’s specialists. And the Orion program won’t fly again until in at least 2022. That’s a big problem; three additional crewed launches are needed to replace the one lost last December when an O-ring broke. [Here are more details about the Orion capsule]
Space mining is now at a critical stage. A huge study by the National Academies just came out, confirming that we now have all the needed technology to try to tap the vast stores of platinum on the moon and other parts of the solar system. Indeed, Bridenstine acknowledged that there’s a huge and growing public interest in it.
That may not be enough to bring us to Mars. The 10-year timeline for that dream is getting shorter by the day, and critics claim that it will take too long to build a space base on the moon. But why the change? Why did Trump put mining priorities at the top of his space agenda, before building the Mars bases that are so badly needed? That’s the question we need answers to.