The audacity of 2024
By Ben Iannotta|June 2019
Over the next 16 months, we’ll learn whether setting a bold, but probably unrealistic, date of 2024 for a U.S. return to the moon was folly or a stroke of genius by the Trump administration.
In the genius column, this aggressive schedule could be the only way to push the lunar hardware to the point of “too big to cancel” before a new administration has a chance to rethink NASA’s entire strategy on Inauguration Day in January 2021 or 2025.
In the folly column, the 2024 goal could backfire as follows: Rushing could increase the odds of a critical test failure. An ambivalent audience in Congress or a corner of the executive branch might balk at supplying tax dollars to try again. An example of this is the X-33 single-stage-to-orbit demonstrator that was supposed to clear the technical path for a successor to the space shuttle. The wall of its liquid hydrogen tank peeled apart after a 1999 ground test. That turned out to be the coup de grâce for the program, and the X-33 never flew.
This is the point in the conversation when someone invariably declares, “That’s why we test.” True, but there are reasons everyone does high-fives when requirements are met or exceeded. One of them is that it’s harder to defund success. In fact, that knowledge could be what drives the infamously risk-adverse culture within U.S. government space programs. Huge risks tend to be unacceptable until we perceive that our way of life is at stake. That’s why the pace of American aerospace innovation during World War II and the Cold War amazes us today.
In the folly column could be an overestimation of the ability to shift that culture without such a driver. It’s understandable to want NASA to return to the “light this candle” culture of the 1960s and to be more like the Russian managers who put the Soyuz rockets back to work just eight weeks after a harrowing launch abort. Desire is easy. Change is harder. It’s not at all clear that top-down pressure from the political leadership can accomplish this. Today, careers, the lives of colleagues and dollars are at stake, but not the future of the nation.
For sure, Election Day 2020 will be a good moment to take stock of the Trump administration’s performance on many fronts, including the proposed lunar return, even if that won’t be a voting issue for most citizens. Where matters stand could well determine whether Americans touch the moon again.