Back to the Moon? Not so fast, Mr. Cavor

Vice President Pence has told NASA that Trump wants the US to return to the Moon within five years. I sincerely doubt that will happen. I don’t think Trump expects it to happen.

This announcement falls into the category of cynical political ploy, and there is a long history, long in modern media terms, of US Presidents playing the space card as a way of grasping for support from the tech industry and all the astronaut wannabes out there.

Back in 2017, after Pence’s first call to return to the Moon, the Washington Post listed all the times since Kennedy that various presidents, all of them Republican, had used that call as a propaganda device. Only Obama had resisted the temptation, saying “We’ve been there,” and suggesting more useful and achievable objectives, such as an asteroid landing.

There is an old project management theory that says your resource options for building a new system are are: Quality, Speed, and Cost, and you get to pick two of the three.

Going to the Moon is hard, and if you want to do it without killing too many people, you have to have the best quality people, processes, and equipment possible. That leaves you with making tradeoffs between the other two factors.

Speed is political. When Kennedy announced the Apollo Program in 1961, he gave NASA until the end of the decade — eight years — to accomplish it. Trump has decided that it has to be done in five. By the way, the five year limit is interesting. That’s about the amount of time that Trump has left in office, assuming the Trekkie vote helps him win in 2020.

So the factor that has to give is cost. We want a really high quality system really fast. Actually, that should read really, really fast. That’s going to cost a lot. More than the original $100B (in today’s money) that Apollo cost. Where’s the money to come from?

Keep in mind that we already have a record federal deficit, thanks to Trump. The DoD is asking for a record amount of money, not just to make up for the maintenance we didn’t do while we were pissing our resources away in the Middle East Wars (you would have thought they’d have learned from VietNam), but to completely restructure the force to meet modern adversaries with totally new classes of modern weapons. We still have a critical infrastructure problem, and the states that form Trump’s base are continuing to sink into irrelevance and unemployment, with severe drug and healthcare issues. Oh, and Trump wants to spend an additional $5B on that wall.

Enter Congress. There are two kinds of Congressional committees, those that deal with laws and policies, and those that deal with money. If a policy committee approves a $5B program, all they have done is voted for a $5B box. It’s up to the appropriate appropriations committee to fill it with what they think is an appropriate amount of money, not necessarily $5B worth.

Now, the appropriations committees are constrained by overall goals decided upon by the leadership. They can’t exceed their guidelines, but they can move money around within their areas of responsibility. And NASA falls under the United States House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. It’s a Related Agency. So is the Social Security Administration. Spending on highway infrastructure is part of Transportation. So, question for the class is, which would you rather do, fix the potholes on I-5, help Grandma buy her cancer drugs, or go to the Moon while Trump is in office? Note that this is an issue no matter which party controls Congress, which is probably why nothing got done after Pence’s 2017 speech.

So, no. We’re not going to be back on the Moon in five years, and probably not in ten. The call for a new Moon Program is the equivalent of a real estate developer putting up signs claiming that a new light rail station will be going in, Real Soon Now, right next to the development he’s selling houses in. It’s a science fiction pipe dream, right up there with The Second Men in the Moon.

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