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The White House needs to lay the groundwork for several more manned lunar landings if it truly wants to head off China in space.

By Adam Minter
May 4, 2019, 5:00 PM PDT

In 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy set a goal of placing Americans on the moon by the end of the decade. Eight years later, on July 20, 1969, his ambition was fulfilled. For the next three years, American astronauts made regular, albeit brief, visits to the lunar surface. The journeys ended in December 1972, when Apollo 17 departed a lunar highland for the trip home. No human, much less an American, has ventured past low Earth orbit since then.

The Trump administration says it wants to change that. In late March, Vice President Mike Pence announced it was the “stated policy” of the White House to return U.S. astronauts to the lunar surface within the next five years. The short deadline is smart, if ambitious. But any new U.S. moonshot can’t claim to be a success if it only leaves behind another set of lunar boot prints. The mission must instead focus on establishing the technologies, infrastructure and commercial motives to ensure that such visits become more than a twice-a-century occurrence.

Kennedy, whose support for budget-wrecking lunar exploration was driven by fear that the Soviets would get to the moon first, had very different motivations. To achieve his goal, NASA consumed around 5 percent of the federal budget during the 1960s. As soon as the mission was accomplished, funding declined. Today, NASA receives only around 0.5 percent of the federal budget.

In the absence of a well-defined foreign threat, the once-mighty U.S. human exploration program has become bogged down in administrative inertia and pork-barrel-inspired meddling. For example, the Space Launch System (SLS), a troubled $12 billion dollar (and counting) rocket intended to send Americans back to the moon, has more than doubled its cost estimates and is years behind schedule. At current pace, the rocket won’t carry Americans to the moon until 2028 —- 18 years after Congress first funded it.

Trump never expressed much interest in space during his years in business, much less during his presidential campaign. But he is obsessed with China’s technological rivalry with the U.S. While still decades behind the U.S., China has landed rovers on the moon in recent years and plans to send more in the next decade, leading to a possible human mission in the 2030s. Meanwhile, the Chinese government hasn’t hidden the fact that it views the moon as a future strategic military and economic asset.

To counter Chinese ambitions, the Trump administration has increased NASA’s budget, supported regulatory reforms designed to boost the commercial space sector, and launched a military Space Force. Now, the thinking goes, it’s time to reclaim America’s leading role in human lunar exploration.

It won’t be easy or cheap. The basic architecture of the mission will rely upon the SLS rocket, a to-be-built space station orbiting the moon and a privately contracted lunar lander. Ars Technica reports that NASA could request as much as $8 billion per year for the project.

While Trump is clearly hoping to take credit for the landing before a possible second term ends, the rushed timetable is actually wise. Before March, NASA had only vague plans to land humans on the moon in 2028 using a blueprint devised during the Obama administration. Decades of sorry experience show that expensive space plans spread out over several presidential administrations tend to be canceled. Speeding things up, assuming it can be done safely, gives the project a better chance of success.

The five-year framework also has the virtue of forcing NASA’s entrenched contractors — especially the Boeing Co. and others connected to the over-budget and delayed SLS — to prove that their technologies are something more than pork-barrel projects. If they can’t meet the deadline, there’s no point in continuing to fund them, especially at a time when commercial space companies such as Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin LLC are developing their own lunar capabilities.

Still, any U.S. lunar landing will be little more than an expensive publicity stunt if there’s no plan — and no infrastructure — to ensure that such missions become affordable and routine. That means that the needs of the commercial sector need to be incorporated into the planning for the mission from the beginning. Only then can NASA hope to establish a permanent lunar base that supports both public and private initiatives (and counterbalances China’s plans for a similar outpost).

Early signs aren’t promising. NASA’s decision to launch the mission on the expensive SLS elbows out opportunities for commercial space companies eager to make moon travel profitable. Similarly, it’s difficult to see the point of launching an expensive space station around the moon when the commercial space community has — so far — shown little interest in it as a platform for lunar exploration.

The good news is that NASA has strongly indicated that it expects the commercial space sector to have a role in this new moonshot. Before Congress commits to fund it, NASA should lay out a clear plan for how the mission sets the stage for a next one, as well as a permanent U.S. presence on the moon. A truly successful landing will leave something more than footprints behind.