Trump backs lunar spaceport but axes new space telescope and education

NASA is to put a spaceport in orbit around the Moon to send humans back to the lunar surface, and to Mars and beyond. But President Trump has ordered an end to government funding of the International Space Station and cancelled a new space telescope, WFIRST.

NASA’s concept for a refuelling station orbiting the Moon to act as a gateway to other destinations. Image credit: NASA

Called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, the Moon’s new space station will be a departure point for missions further out into space. NASA’s $19.9 billion budget, set out by Trump, allows for the launch of a power and propulsion element to orbit the Moon as the first stage in building the new gateway.

Announcing the proposals, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said: “This budget codifies the President’s Space Policy Directive-1, which charges us to ‘lead an innovative and sustainable campaign of exploration that will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and use followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.’

“In short, we are once again on a path to return to the Moon with an eye toward Mars.”

President Trump’s FY 2019 NASA Budget Request will pull government funding out of the International Space Station, which NASA operates in conjunction with Russia and other nations.

Instead, NASA will have to try to turn what are called low-Earth orbit operations over to private companies.

It has sparked fears among scientists that the station could switch from being a valuable laboratory studying the effects of space of humans to a space hotel for rich visitors.

The plan also cancels a flagship mission to launch a new $3.9 billion space telescope designed to study dark energy (which could make up 70 percent of the Universe), exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics.

The Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST) was intended to fly a six-year mission, launching in the mid-2020s. Its mirror would have been similar in size to Hubbles, but it would have had a field of view 100 times greater and measured light from a billion galaxies.

An artist’s impression of how the WFIRST telescope would have looked in space. Image credit: NASA

Lightfoot’s statement said: “Our robust scientific activity will include missions to Mars; lunar surface missions that leverage commercial capabilities; diverse Earth and planetary missions; and spacecraft to study the Sun and how it influences the very nature of space.

“Powerful observatories will study other solar systems and their planets and peer back to the dawn of time through other galaxies.”

“One hard decision we had to make was the proposed cancellation of the WFIRST mission in astrophysics and to redirect those resources to other agency priorities.

The budget will also remove funding from NASA’s Education Office. The agency has a fantastic reputation for promoting its activities, and space knowledge in general.

Lightfoot said: “While the budget does not provide funding for an Office of Education, NASA’s mission successes will continue to inspire the next generation to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies, join us on our journey of discovery, and become the diverse workforce we’ll need for tomorrow’s critical aerospace careers.

“We will use every opportunity to engage learners in our work and the many ways it encourages educators, students, and the public to continue making their own discoveries.”

Related: NASA shortlists new space missions

Lightfoot said: “This budget proposes for NASA to ramp up efforts to transition low-Earth activities to the commercial sector, and end direct federal government support of the ISS in 2025 and begin relying on commercial partners for our low-Earth orbit research and technology demonstration requirements.”

Of the spaceport orbiting the Moon, he added: “This will give us a strategic presence in the lunar vicinity that will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us further explore the Moon and its resources and translate that experience toward human missions to Mars.

“Further, drawing on the interests and capabilities of our industry and international partners, we’ll develop progressively complex robotic missions to the surface of the Moon with scientific and exploration objectives in advance of human return there.

“As before, the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft are critical backbone elements for this effort and for moving farther into deep space. Their momentum continues this year toward the first integrated launch of the system in fiscal year 2020 around the Moon and a mission with crew in 2023.

“Technology drives exploration, both human and robotic, and helps us solve problems in space and on Earth. We will focus on applications of technology toward deep space exploration, and innovative ways to further our goals from concept to testing and flight.”

NASA’s announcement was welcomed by leading figures in commercial spaceflight. Robert Bigelow, head of Bigelow Aerospace, said: “The new budget is Earth-shattering news in the space world. There are multiple pathways that can energize exciting opportunities ovetr the next few years.

“Bigelow Aerospace applauds the focus on commercial partnerships for low Earth orbit and lunar exploration and stands ready to partner with NASA and othrs – in new and exciting ways that we will announce in the near future.”

Related: Obama axes NASA’s return to the Moon

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