If the Latin phrase ad astra per aspera—“to the stars through difficulty”—applies to anyone, it’s
the newly confirmed administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. After a lengthy and bitterly partisan confirmation fight, the 42-year-old former naval aviator takes charge of an agency that has been whipsawed by the policy reversals of recent presidential administrations.
The George W. Bush-era Constellation Program would have sent American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972, but President Obama scotched it in 2010 in favor of a mission to Mars. Now NASA has received orders from President Trump to reverse course again—drop Mars and focus on the moon.
In some ways the prospects for a successful lunar mission look better than they have in decades. NASA now has several significant advantages that it previously lacked. A growing commercial space sector stands eager to work with the government on a moon shot, and numerous American allies—including Germany, India, Japan and Israel—are embarked on efforts to land robots on the lunar surface.
Soon after Mr. Obama canceled Constellation, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study suggesting that re-establishing a presence on the moon first could make the eventual exploration of Mars much more feasible. The dark craters at the lunar poles potentially contain billions of tons of ice, which, believe it or not, researchers say can be refined into rocket fuel. One day soon an American spaceship en route to Mars could swing by the moon to refuel.
Mr. Bridenstine may be asked to do what hasn’t been done since the Apollo program was shuttered in the early ’70s, but the Trump administration is unlikely to give him Apollo-level budgets. He will also have to fulfill NASA’s other mandates, including planetary exploration and Earth science. The latter featured prominently in his confirmation hearings. Mr. Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma, expressed skepticism of climate change during his time in Congress. Expect an annual replay of the nomination drama when Congress debates funding for the space agency.
If Mr. Bridenstine works hard and smart, and has a measure of luck, he will hasten the day when American astronauts return to explore the moon’s secrets. The stakes are high. There are no guarantees that Mr. Trump’s successor, whomever that may be, will be as open to the idea. This opportunity may not come again soon.
No pressure, Mr. Bridenstine.
Mr. Whittington is author of “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” and “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”
Appeared in the May 3, 2018, print edition.