WASHINGTON — President Trump criticized NASA on Friday for focusing on travel to the moon, raising questions about the space agency’s mandate just months after his administration declared the US would return astronauts to the moon within five years “by any means necessary.”
For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon - We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 7, 2019
The president’s tweet followed an announcement by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that it would allow private citizens to travel to the International Space Station and open some facilities to businesses to help pay for the plan to return to the moon by 2025. But the president’s tweet stood in contrast to previous comments about his directive for NASA, a key feature of which is returning astronauts to the moon by 2025.
He unveiled the plan in December, saying: “The directive I’m signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery. It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 for long-term exploration and use.”
Trump was joined at the event by Jack Schmitt, the last American to land on the moon. “Today, we pledge that he will not be the last,” the president said.
The White House followed up with a fact sheet in March. It was titled: “President Donald J. Trump Is Boldly Putting Americans Back on the Moon.” The fact sheet came as Vice President Mike Pence held a speech at a meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, Alabama, saying the U.S. would return astronauts to the moon within five years “by any means necessary.”
It’s unclear when the president decided NASA shouldn’t focus on the moon. Less than a month ago, Trump reiterated his enthusiasm for the plan in a tweet:
And just last week, during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump said: “We’ll be going to the moon. We’ll be going to Mars very soon. It’s very exciting. And from a military standpoint, there is nothing more important right now than space.”
NASA’s current budget is about $21.5 billion, while China’s annual space spending is about $8 billion.
The US and China are in a race to explore Mars and beyond as the two powers compete for economic, technological and military superiority. After becoming the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon last year, China is planning four more missions to return samples to earth before studying the feasibility of a lunar research base.
The US is the only nation to land an astronaut on the moon but hasn’t performed the feat since 1972. NASA no longer has rockets capable of making the trip, and a new moon program begun under President George W. Bush was subsequently canceled by President Barack Obama over cost concerns.
Under Trump’s plan, the US will try to land on the moon’s south pole by 2024, establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028, and chart a future path for Mars exploration. NASA’s lunar presence, the White House said in the March fact sheet, will focus on science, resource management and risk reduction for future missions to Mars.
China plans to launch the Chang’e-5 probe to the moon later this year, with three more in the offing, Wu Yanhua, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, said in January. At least two of them will land on the moon’s south pole and conduct research, he said.