The last person to step foot on the Moon was the late US astronaut Gene Cernan in 1972. Since that time, the Apollo program ended, the Space Shuttle program started and ended, and the International Space Station began housing astronauts from around the world.
With little success, many people in Congress have tried to nudge NASA back to the Moon. Earlier this month, Republican Congressman Bill Posey of Florida, a former rocket inspector, submitted a bill with this very long title: "To direct the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to plan to return to the Moon and develop a sustained human presence on the Moon."
"You can see many, many reasons why it's good to have a Moon base…"
This isn't the first time Posey has submitted a bill with its sights set on the Moon. The last attempt was in 2013 when he tried to pass a bill with an almost identical title. And in a recent hearing held by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Congressman Posey shared his experience working at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (for rocket company McDonnell Douglas) during the first Moon landing, and his hopes for experiencing that again in his lifetime.
Going to the Moon again would be exciting, but NASA's already-minuscule budget (a mere $18.5 billion in 2016, compared to $585 billion for the Department of Defense) means that the agency can probably only afford one big dream at a time. Do we go back to the Moon or do we press ahead on visiting Mars? Right now, Mars is winning by a landslide. For the last few years NASA has been focused on its Journey to Mars, with no plans to send people back to the Moon.
"This bill proposes not just a visit to the Moon but a presence on the lunar surface," Casey Dreier, space policy expert at the Planetary Society, told Motherboard. "This isn't wrong by any means, but it's one of those things that if you do this, you just won't go to Mars for a long time."
In fact, if we changed course from the Journey to Mars to Journey Back to the Moon, we might not see footprints on Mars in our lifetime. "It would put us back at least a generation," Dreier said.
The contentious debate of Mars vs the Moon will likely continue until gray or red dust covers the boots of an astronaut. To find out more about the disagreement and the push for the Moon, Motherboard spoke to Congressman Bill Posey. Below is the text of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Motherboard: How many times have you tried to get this bill passed?
Congressman Posey: This will be the third time.
Why do you want NASA to go back to the Moon?
It's part of the stepping stone to Mars, actually. I would like to see every move that NASA makes be a part of a plan to bring men to Mars.
Given NASA's already underfunded budget, do you think it would be worth abandoning a mission to Mars to go back to the Moon?
It's a matter of prioritization, and we've asked NASA to prepare a roadmap of what steps they're going to take in a timeline given current funding, for increased funding or decreased funding. What steps are you going to take to get to the Moon? They have discovered there are resources on the Moon that they can make fuel out of, you know launching from the Moon, you can see many, many reasons why it's good to have a Moon base. And that's part of the process of getting to Mars. It's been awhile since we've been on the Moon and we've had some technology to catch up on and practice so those are all important.
Do you think President Trump will make a difference in you getting this bill passed?
I hope so.
What about the private sector and commercial ventures going to the Moon? Is there any relationship to re-launching this bill now and the interest of private companies?
I'm excited about any private industry that plans on doing any space exploration. One time NASA came up with a series of different ideas, they would touch an asteroid, land on an asteroid, then it changed to a bigger mission and then smaller mission but there was no tie-in to a Mars mission. A lot of the private sector are ready, willing and able to explore and mine asteroids so that we don't need to do it. Anything that you can find in the phonebook that the private sector is doing, the government doesn't really need to be doing. Exploring an asteroid is one of those things.
Let's say this bill passes, what would that mean for NASA and the future of human spaceflight?
They wouldn't look any different than it does now, they would just be more focused on the mission.
Are there other reasons to go back to the Moon right now?
There are many good reasons to go back to the Moon, there's many scientific, technological and economic benefits in going back to the Moon. It's an ideal place to practice another landing, there are fuel sources on the Moon. Even people who two years ago, three years ago thought, "oh we've been to the Moon, been there done that"—they've even changed their mind. That's the obvious place to start the Mars mission and maintain the Mars mission.
Does the fact that both China and Russia plan on going to the Moon influence this plan at all?
Both Russia and the Chinese have expressed their interest to colonize the Moon and you know, we went there to collect Moon rocks and samples to help figure out the origin of the universe. They don't colonize places just for scientific study, they generally militarize their colonizations, so if we want to remain the leader in space we obviously need to at least keep pace with the Russians and Chinese.
What if competitors that you mention like China decided to go straight to Mars instead of the Moon? Would that change the urgency Congress feels about focusing on that path?
They may have better plans, but all the plans and theories that I have seen so far or heard from the people who are knowledgeable, say that the Moon is a necessary step to colonizing Mars. Where's the best place with current technologies to practice landing? Do you want to do the first practice at Mars the first time or would you like to test the equipment on the Moon before you go there? We can practice this stuff on the Moon that we can't imitate somewhere else.
So a return to the Moon wouldn't just be for scientific or economic purposes but for our safety as well?
During the last presidential cycle when Romney was running for office, they held a Republican debate in Tampa that was nationally televised, we were looking for there to be some discussion on space there. So Newt Gingrich said "I think that we should colonize the Moon" [Editor's note: Gingrich actually called for a moon colony during a town hall prior to the debate] without saying the Russians and Chinese are going to colonize it—he just made a statement.
Right away Santorum jumped up and said, "you're just pandering to the I-4 corridor", Romney said, "that's the stupidest thing I ever heard, I'd fire anybody on my staff that recommended that."
And of course Michael Griffin, former NASA administrator who thinks it's apparent that we go back to the Moon is on his staff, and then Ron Paul, bless his heart, said, "returning to the Moon is important to our national sense. We really need to send all the politicians to the Moon." [Editor's note: Republican Congressman Ron Paul said "I don't think we should go to the moon, I think maybe we should send some politicians up there sometimes."] The entire crowd laughed and that was the end of the debate on space.
What happened the very next day? They had to move the ISS [International Space Station]. Why? Because of space debris. Where did that space debris come from? An 8,000-pound Chinese satellite that they blew up. [Editor's note: The Chinese government destroyed one of its own weather satellites in 2007, and it weighed an estimated 880 kilograms, or approximately 1,940 pounds, but the ISS was never moved as a result.] Why would they shoot their own dog? To prove to themselves and everyone else that they could do it. A week later they had to move the ISS again, this time for Russian space debris from when they played target practice with one of their own satellites. [Editor's note: An ISS maneuver took place in 2012 to avoid debris created from a 2009 accidental impact of a US and Russian satellite]. You can take out a half dozen of our satellites and basically put our country back in the dark ages.
If the bill doesn't pass on the fourth try, do you think you'll try again?
Well, hopefully the roadmap to Mars for NASA would include this information and we wouldn't even need to pass this bill. We'd still get our way having it incorporated into the NASA long range plan for going to Mars.
Do you have a special memory from working on Apollo 11 that you'd like for the next generation to experience?
What inspired me so much was President Kennedy's speech from Rice University, that was so inspiring to me when he said we're going to put a rocket on the Moon. I wanted to go to work on that rocket and have my fingerprints on that rocket that takes men to the Moon. So that was a big inspiration for me and I think returning to the Moon will also re-engage the public's interest in the space program and inspire a new generation of American students to study engineering and mathematics where we currently lag behind other students in competing nations.
How do you see NASA handling itself as we move forward between finally choosing between going back to the Moon or going straight to Mars?
We've spent somewhere between $20-24 billion on what we call "missions to nowhere" and we can't do that again. The NASA budget is now about one half of one percent [of the GDP]. During the Apollo era it was 4 percent of the GDP, I would love to see it at 1 percent. Neil deGrasse Tyson explained very well one time, space is the only thing that Congress spends money on truly to benefit the next generation, and I think that's a true statement. I'd like to see congress spend 1 percent, I'd even like to see a constitutional amendment requiring that 1 percent be spent on human space exploration each year so that we will have the survival of our species.
I used to talk about this and local critics said I was just trying to scare people, and then last year [Editor's note: the Chelyabinsk meteor explosion happened in 2013, four years ago] we had that relatively small asteroid detonate over a completely unpopulated area in Russia and it injured over 1,000 people, 1,000 miles away [Editor's note: an estimated 1,500 were injured and damage was reported 79 miles away].
It's really not just about the bill, it's about the mission. We've even had former astronauts who used to oppose me now say, "oh yeah, we should go back to the Moon," and that makes me feel really good.
What would you like to see the next NASA administrator do to help advance human exploration?
Produce a plan. Produce a plan and let it be bold. Produce a plan, we just don't get a plan from NASA and prioritize it. If everything's a priority then nothing's a priority, right? This is contingent on funding at this level, etc. The critics are always saying NASA is behind schedule, and I say well listen, if I gave you $50 to walk 50 miles, that's called a deal. But then if I only give you $25 instead of $50, wouldn't it be wrong to criticize you for only walking 25 miles? That's all I paid you for. People don't get that. We have asked NASA before to be bold, we've asked them to do too much for too little, and the deal that they're always behind usually can be credited with congress not doing its part to fund the programs they ask for.
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