Will humans really be back on the moon by 2024? A Q&A with space experts

By Isabel Dobrin
What can we gain from going back to the moon? We hosted a live chat on Reddit with space industry experts about the new race to the moon.

When Vice President Mike Pence announced earlier this year that NASA would send humans back to the moon in 2024 – four years earlier than planned – the call evoked President John F. Kennedy’s famous rallying speech that spurred Americans’ first lunar landing.

But the days of the Apollo program are long over. Fifty years ago, a Cold War competition between two superpowers motivated the first moon mission. Today NASA is still trying to convince Congress to appropriate money for such a return. Plus, the field is wider now – new international players have since joined the race, and commercial companies have their own plans for space travel.

We hosted a live chat on Reddit with space industry experts to answer questions about the new moon race. A key question the panelists answered: What can we gain from going back to the moon at all?

We’ve reproduced some of the top Q&As below, edited slightly for brevity and clarity.

Question:
What are the chances of this actually happening?

There are still a lot of hurdles to overcome before an American stands on the moon again. One of the biggest is the cost. NASA is asking for $1.6 billion in fiscal 2020, but NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the total cost of sending humans to the moon by 2024 is likely to be between $20 to $30 billion. It's unclear if Congress will appropriate that money, or where it would come from. Democratic lawmakers seem determined not to cut NASA's other science and STEM missions to pay for exploration.

There's also the question of the outcome of the 2020 election. President Donald Trump has been vocal about his space ambitions, but so far, Democratic nominees have not made space a key talking point. A new administration could change or completely kill the mission to the moon.

— Jacqueline Feldscher, POLITICO national security reporter

Question:
What is the point of going to the moon? We've already been there. Mars should be next.

Exploration of the moon and Mars shouldn't be thought of as two different endeavors. The moon is a testbed for Mars and lets us test technologies we need. These tests are critical to enable our trip to Mars — e.g., life support without “easy” Earth resupply, radiation effects on humans, etc. And we can eventually use the moon's resources to produce prop for the transit to Mars.

— Dina Contella, NASA’s Gateway Operations Integration Office Manager at the Johnson Space Center

Also, as we think about exploration and extending the human neighborhood into the solar system and beyond, it would make sense to use the locations closest to us to learn as much as possible. For example, when teaching the Girl and Boy Scouts about camping, one doesn't typically go to the Grand Canyon on the first camping trip. You learn the skills in camping trips nearer to home.

— Daniel Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Question:
How is planting a few more fading flags going to improve life here on Earth?

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently made the case to me that investment in NASA pays dividends for life on Earth. He talked specifically about space-based communications, especially the impact they've had on rural parts of the world, and how space is increasing crop yields and feeding more people through the use of GPS.

There's also a lot of medical research currently going on on the International Space Station, including testing out new drugs in orbit to figure out long term effects faster. The Gateway space station orbiting around the moon would also likely include some medical science that would improve life on Earth. The high level of radiation the station would be exposed to could make it especially useful for cancer research, a National Institutes of Health official told me earlier this year.

— Jacqueline Feldscher, POLITICO national security reporter

Question:
Can the U.S. build space tech as economically and effectively as it could the last time we went to the moon?

I am not so sure it was "economically" done in the Apollo era, as we were just understanding the physics and fundamental technical challenges. Today we are working on economic answers to meet market needs. With the rise of the private enterprise space companies and the resulting competition, we are fundamentally moving to a more effective way to explore space, and you see that in how NASA is using the capabilities of industry. The competition will establish the best locations to do the work, the wages paid for the skills, etc. in order to meet the market demands.

— Daniel Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Question:
If we were to establish a lunar colony, where would it most likely be located?

We won't be seeing "colonies" any time soon — there are lots of problems to solve, including how we protect humans from radiation, how we manage dust (which is a huge problem - it fouls machinery and spacesuits and gets everywhere) — but NASA is targeting the south pole of the moon because it appears to have water trapped in regolith (lunar soil) among other things. Water is most likely to be found in craters that have never seen the sun, where the temperature could be as low as -385F, so we may need nuclear power to warm things up enough to operate equipment there. There's a lot to develop, but the south pole is definitely a good target from what we know now.

— Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration

Question:
What is Trump's view on space exploration, and how much does presidential support matter to the space program? To what extent is NASA support a party line issue?

Presidential or vice presidential leadership on anything makes a big difference, for better or for worse. In the Trump administration, the vice president’s leadership on the National Space Council (and the reinvigoration of the National Space Council in the first place) made a huge difference in the energy, from all levels of government, being injected into the policy making process.

You don't have to look very far to see that President Trump and Vice President Pence have a strong interest in civil, commercial and national security space policy. Whether or not you agree with them is a different question, but the ability of the government to mobilize for any large-scale effort like going to the moon is absolutely proportional to the amount of leadership at the top. Imagine, for example, if JFK had never made his Moonshot speech or called on Congress to fund it.

As far as the party line part of this question, it was my experience as a congressional staffer and while at the National Space Council that space policy wasn’t partisan, it was sometimes parochial, but almost never partisan. I think there is an argument to be made that the fact that Trump made the Space Force and moon 2024 signature space policy items for his administration means that it automatically had detractors, but even there, it is really more of a debate of “how” rather than “if.” It is also worth pointing out that, at least as far back as I can remember, almost every single space policy related legislation has either received unanimous consent or garnered huge bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate.

— Jared Stout, policy advisor at Venable LLP

Question:
Is China actually going to the moon and racing with the U.S., or is that being exaggerated? How much are they spending and when do they plan to have their first landing?

Yes, China is "going," and it's a race in that there are valuable resources to be found there for both the benefit of folks on Earth and future civilization in space. Establishing operational zones that can't be impinged by other nations around specific strategic areas particularly in the polar regions (ice, sunlight, a particularly large imbedded asteroid mass) is a clear strategic goal for both U.S. and China.

What China is spending is totally opaque as their governmental structure doesn't exactly require public accountability. It appears they are on track to be there around early 2030s. They have been slow, careful and methodical. In my opinion, they are neither bold enough nor creative enough to be a threat to the U.S. effort if we embrace the strength of commercial partners and do not impede our own efforts. This isn't to insult their efforts, but if you look at the fact that we went from zero to humans on the moon in less than a decade and they started human spaceflight in the early 2000s and have still only made a handful of flights with a dozen or so astronauts, it’s not very ambitious or impressive, specifically considering they've had 50 years of Soviet and U.S. tech to copy.

— Greg Autry, director of the Southern California Commercial Spaceflight Initiative at the Lloyd Grief Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California