In a Space Race, the Idea Is to Do It First
published during a waning gibbous moon.

The most telling part of NASA’s carefully choreographed unveiling of the new astronaut candidates last week was not the canned questions for the new class or the Insta-prepped photographs primed for social media. Victorian England could have learned a thing or two from NASA about debuting young faces to a royal court. From the Mercury Seven onward, the agency has demonstrated an astounding ability to turn up the wattage: Here they are, the best of us, decked in blue with All-American grins for miles. They could star in teeth-whitening commercials, the lot of them, World-War-II-movie brave and just rarin’ to get to space but hopefully back in time for Sunday School. That’s how NASA does it, and it works, and by every measure, astronauts young and old alike deserve every camera flash photon sent their way. They strap on missiles, after all, and leave the cradle on our behalf. They are made celebrities because they deserve to be.

But that wasn’t the real show last week, or if it was, it was upstaged by a rare slip in NASA public affairs. The glaring, glowing, screaming message of the day stood directly behind the candidates on stage–the colossal mockup of the Orion capsule, itself all but beseeching: Bolt me to a rocket and let’s go! Mounted to latticework that framed the astronauts were familiar posters produced by the best graphic designers at the agency. There was an illustration of Orion to really bring home the point that yes, this thing will one day launch, and here it is above our pale blue dot. Another poster featured the International Space Station, where each of the new astronauts might one day work, do science, and take selfies that accumulate millions of likes on Instagram. There were cargo spacecraft, presumably each carrying supplies but perhaps (in the illustration, at least), even astronauts. Of course, there was the Space Launch System rocket—glorious as ever, columns of flame pushing it beyond imagination. Message: American spaceflight is back in business. And there, almost thirty years after the Space Exploration Initiative to Mars, twelve years after the Constellation program to Mars, and eight years after NASA squeezed the #journeytomars hashtag into every tweet and bumper sticker it could manage was a picture of… the Moon.

space race

Acting Administrator Lightfoot speaks at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston during the introduction of the 2017 astronaut candidates on June 7, 2017. Credit: NASA

On a day guaranteed to receive adulating attention by the national press and a rarely riveted but now attuned public, NASA’s bouncers stopped Mars at the door. During speeches by the vice president and others, there were no “One of these astronauts will go to Mars!” declarations with Kennedyesque certitude. When the verboten planet’s name was muttered, it was hedged with “may.” One of these astronauts may go to Mars, said Vice President Mike Pence, the chair-in-waiting of the National Space Council. Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, spoke only of the “next big step.” The 2030s isn’t that far off, and a young astronaut today would almost certainly command just such a mission. Considering the Trump administration’s hostility to the Earth, the least they could do is promote Mars. Is there no planet they like?

Message: American spaceflight is back in business.

Since the election, the Moon has received outsized attention. It is perhaps a fool’s errand to divine national space policy from a few press conference posters, but such is the new normal in the age of the tempestuous Trump, where Kremlinology—that is, colloquially, determining the political standing of underlings and initiatives based on who is standing where in photographs, and who is seated next to whom at meetings—can yield inordinately valuable information. (That Kremlinology was the study of Soviet policies is oddly appropriate given recent scandals.) So when Mars is missing from a photograph at a Trump-era NASA event, you have to wonder about Mars’s fate. Is it humming along, on schedule for a 2033 visit, or has it been banished to the policy equivalent of a Siberian gulag?

To be sure, the Moon is a big part of the Journey to Mars. Cislunar space—that vast expanse between the Earth and the Moon—is NASA’s “proving ground” for Earth independence. It is where deep life support systems will be tested, and new solar electric propulsion will be put through the paces before carrying cargo, crafts, and crew across planetary distances. You get to cislunar space with SLS and the Exploration Upper Stage, and so you’re testing those launch vehicles a bit closer to home before slinging star voyagers across the solar system. No matter where you go, Moon or Mars, there is tremendous utility in developing that region of space.

Not so much the lunar surface—at least, not for a very long time. One day, maybe the Moon will host a gas station on the ride to Mars. Maybe it’ll provide astronauts with an ocean of water. Maybe its minerals can be harvested to manufacture an armada of Star Destroyers. Or maybe it can do none of those things, and the time necessary to answer those questions, let alone generate hypothetical resources in sufficient quantity, would be time enough for astronauts to have built cities on the fourth rock, let alone colonies.

And yet here we are, talking again of the Moon for reasons inexplicable in 2017. Change parties, it seems, change destinations for human exploration, as though a 4.5 billion-year-old alabaster orb circling the Earth is an issue in need of politicization. Across the ocean, Jan Woerner, director-general of the European Space Agency, presses this advantage, ably and persuasively selling his vision of a Moon village. His reasons, at least, are understandable. ESA can do the Moon, and he knows more than anyone the fickle nature of NASA’s commitments. There is every reason to believe they would be overjoyed to have a European astronaut on a crewed NASA Mars mission, but few reasons to believe that mission will ever actually happen. If you’re Woerner, why not push for the possible?

space race

The Orion spacecraft, launched by the Space Launch System rocket, flies to the ‘Proving Ground.’ Credit: NASA

Looming, meanwhile, like a spider at NASA headquarters is China. The Chinese Space Agency is no dilettante in lunar exploration. They have, over the last ten years, built a serious, solid, sophisticated Moon program, ambitious in its goals, methodical in execution, and with a perfect track record so far. An orbiter in 2007 that produced a lunar map of stunning detail. A reconnaissance orbiter in 2010 to identify potential landing sites. (The spacecraft then traveled to the L2 libration point, once the exclusive domain of NASA and ESA, to test tracking technology.) A lander and rover in 2013, achieving the first graceful landing on the lunar surface since the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. NASA even used the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to spy on the lander’s Yutu rover to prove indeed that it is real. (It is.) China mounted a lunar flyby in 2014 to test hardware for yet another new mission set to launch this year: a lunar sample return mission. Flyby, orbiter, lander, rover, sample return. After that, there will remain one small step, and it’s taken by humans.

Which, of course, is what makes the prospect of a new race to the Moon so tantalizing and perilous. The United States planted its flag on the Moon in the 1960’s, but spaceflight is a perishable skill. Had Apollo 17 been followed by the Athena program or Project Poseidon, or whichever Greek gods best spoke to the moment, we wouldn’t be reinventing the lunar wheel today. Orion would be the latest model in a long line of capsules—new cupholders and upholstery, but not the flailing grasp at deep space that it has become. SLS would be our super heavy lift rocket, but not our only one. It would be a propulsive nice-to-have.


Animation of the above four LROC NAC images (short for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, Narrow Angle Camera). Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

We don’t live in that timeline. A return to the Moon for us would be a non-trivial endeavor, to some extent as perilous and challenging now as it was in 1962. A chasm exists in NASA’s institutional memory regarding lunar exploration. Could we do it? Of course! But that’s not the objective! In a space race, the idea is to do it first. Young engineers at the China National Space Administration know how to land a spacecraft on the Moon because they’ve done it. If we go all-in on a pivot to the Moon and the American taxpayer sees on television next year a Taikonaut jabbing a Chinese flag into lunar regolith, does he or she say, “Let’s spend what it takes to get there!” or does he or she say something like “Why bother?” Considering the anemic public support of the Apollo program even while Neil Armstrong was up there, to ask the question is to answer it.

In a space race, the idea is to do it first.

On the other hand, suppose we continue the Journey to Mars in full. China puts one of its Taikonauts up there, and we telephone hearty congratulations: Good job guys! We remember when we did that fifty years ago. We left the keys in the Moon buggy—fill it back up if you take it for a spin. Well, gotta go: we’re off to Mars! We have the sort of advantage on Mars that China has on the Moon and the psychological comfort of a gold medal for having “won” the Moon a long time ago. “There is no question we can beat China to Mars,” Chris Carberry, CEO, and co-founder of Explore Mars, a space advocacy organization, told NOW.SPACE earlier this year. “There is a big question of whether we can beat them back to the Moon.”

NASA is the only agency to successfully land spacecraft on Mars. We’ve been doing it since the 1970s and we never stopped. NASA’s engineers have had to reinvent inventing to pull off their feats of skycranes and supersonic parachutes, and proven that sharp minds and sharpened pencils can make anything possible. The commercial sector is seething to get there, like sweaty, billionaire prizefighters in their corners waiting for the bell. Popular culture has primed the public to expect an army of Mark Watneys in our lifetime. The astronauts of 2017 are the men and women for the job. It boggles the mind that anyone would look at all of that and then ask: “So, um, where should we go?”

They should be asking: “What the hell are we waiting for?”