NASA's Pushing For A Moon Landing in 2024, But That Will Be Difficult The Trump administration keeps repeating that the U.S. will return humans to the moon in 2024. That may be technically possible, but only if the money appears and if everything goes perfectly.
NPR logo

A Moon Landing In 2024? NASA Says It'll Happen; Others Say: No Way

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/803503780/803677730" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Moon Landing In 2024? NASA Says It'll Happen; Others Say: No Way

A Moon Landing In 2024? NASA Says It'll Happen; Others Say: No Way

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/803503780/803677730" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

NASA is shooting for the moon, and they're doing it on deadline. Here's Vice President Mike Pence making the announcement last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: But is getting back to the moon by 2024 even possible? NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: No one has been to the moon since 1972. But it's not like NASA hasn't wanted to go back, they've even been told to do it. Sixteen years ago, then-President George W. Bush laid out a bunch of goals for NASA, like completing the International Space Station and retiring the space shuttle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: Our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020 as the launching point for missions beyond.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In case you haven't noticed, it's now 2020. A lot has happened in the intervening years. President Obama had other priorities in space. The current administration wants people on the moon in 2024. How realistic is that? In September, a member of Congress put that question to Ken Bowersox, who was acting head of human spaceflight at NASA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL POSEY: How confident are you that we'll have boots on the moon by 2024?

KEN BOWERSOX: How confident? Well, I wouldn't bet my oldest child's upcoming birthday present or anything like that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, he was just the acting head of human exploration. Soon after that meeting, NASA hired a new guy, Doug Loverro. And Loverro is more bullish.

DOUG LOVERRO: I see no reason why we can't make it. I am highly confident we can make it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When we met at NASA headquarters, he was wearing a little brass-colored lapel pin with a number on it - 1,799. Every day, he changes the pin so that it counts down the days to the end of 2024.

LOVERRO: To me, it means recognize the value of every day.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's got a review underway to assess NASA's whole moon program. That review is due in about a week. It'll look at the big rocket NASA's been building, which is almost finished, although it's super expensive and years behind schedule.

NASA's also got a new astronaut-carrying capsule. It's undergoing testing. Loverro says, for a moon mission, one critical piece of hardware is missing, a lander - a spacecraft that can take people from lunar orbit down to the surface and back up.

LOVERRO: So that's the piece that right now is the focus of, how do we make sure we create a lander that we can develop and get to the moon in the next five years? That's - well, in this case, four years...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Four years.

LOVERRO: ...Four years and 11 months.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You got four years.

LOVERRO: And 11 months.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA says contracts to build a lunar lander could be awarded in late February or March. So does the aerospace community really think this fast-paced moonshot is doable?

LORI GARVER: Oh, I don't think we will have a man or woman on the moon in 2024, and I don't know anyone who does.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lori Garver is a former deputy NASA administrator.

GARVER: The space community would love to get contracts to go back to the moon. And it doesn't really bother anyone that they would get those contracts saying they could do it in 2024 and not make the deadline. We haven't made deadlines with these major space programs since Apollo.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Rockets blow up, tests fail. The Apollo moonshot of the 1960s took about eight years, but it was basically all NASA was doing. Political leaders were united behind it. The race with the Soviet Union drove the timing, the budget and the willingness to take risks.

GARVER: And I don't believe that the risk that would be required to get someone back to the moon in five years is anything this nation is ready to do.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says most people in the space community won't say that publicly.

GARVER: People don't want to acknowledge it because most people are bought into the system and are making money off the system. And this administration holds a grudge, so it isn't a very popular thing to say that the emperor has no clothes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I asked one retired NASA astronaut, Leroy Chiao, what he thought about a 2024 moon landing.

LEROY CHIAO: You know, my realistic assessment is that it's not likely.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Chiao served as commander of the International Space Station. He says NASA has to deal with a lot of political considerations.

CHIAO: Why was 2024 chosen? Well, everybody can see that, you know, with the election cycles and all that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A moon landing in 2024 would mean a triumph during the last year of President Trump's second term if he gets reelected in November. Chiao feels bad for folks at NASA headquarters. He says they really want a moon landing and are doing everything they can.

CHIAO: I don't think they're just blowing smoke, necessarily. They've set things up so that there's a somewhat believable story that if the money shows up, they can - you know, they can do it if everything goes perfectly. But we know from history that that doesn't usually happen.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Congress controls the money, and not everyone there feels the same sense of urgency as the Trump administration. Eddie Bernice Johnson is a Democrat from Texas who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON: I am more interested in maximizing the odds of success for this bold undertaking and making it as safe as any human journey into the deep space can be than I am in having NASA meet arbitrary deadlines.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A NASA authorization bill just introduced into the House of Representatives would extend the moon landing deadline to 2028. And if someone besides President Trump wins in November, the new president will likely have his or her own feelings about a return to the moon.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.