WASHINGTON (CN) – It’s been a decade since water was first discovered trapped in ice on the moon and the head of NASA told a Senate committee Wednesday that discovery will soon become just one of many things enticing space tourists of the future.
NASA Administrator James Bridenstine has grand plans for the agency he was tapped to lead last year, including missions like Lunar Gateway, which will place a small space station in “habitual lunar orbit” and could facilitate generations of lunar and outer space exploration.
Though the future boasts a seemingly endless stream of possibilities to advance humankind’s relationship with outer space, Bridenstine told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday that all of these dreams come at cost.
Last week, the Trump administration proposed roughly $21 billion for NASA’s 2020 budget, a decrease in funding by some $480 million from what it received last year.
The proposal also includes a $600 million cut to NASA’s science programs and seeks to shutter certain branches within the agency, like the Office of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The budget would also kill programs like the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, an infrared observatory which astronomers the world over rely on.
Like last year’s budget, NASA this year also proposed serious cuts to funding in its astrophysics department and called for the cancellation of missions tied to satellites studying climate change on earth.
Though the agency zeroed out the budget for those items, Congress ultimately restored funding in its final lap of appropriations last year.
It’s uncertain if the same will happen this year, but committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., was quick to point out some of NASA’s shortcomings on Wednesday amid Bridenstine’s pleas for additional funding.
NASA, for example, is now well behind China on the international space race to the dark side of the moon, Wicker noted. The plan was to arrive by 2020 but NASA reported earlier this year that the mission is now on ice.
China is still on track to touch down by 2025, a maneuver which could help the nation eclipse the U.S. as the preferred space travel partner of the future, Wicker warned.
“But this year marks our 50th anniversary of landing on the moon,” Bridenstine said. “We have been the preeminent space-faring nation. When I meet with international partners, they are most excited about going to the moon again. But this time, we’re doing it differently.”
The NASA chief said the rush to reach the dark side can wait when what the U.S. is truly after is a chance to put a “sustainable” and “permanent human presence” on the moon and in space through a series of public-private ventures.
“And [we can do it] with landers, rovers, robots and humans with more access to more parts of the moon than ever before. We landed on the moon six times between 1969 and 1972. From then until 2008, we made a big discovery. We believed the moon was bone dry, but there’s hundreds of millions of tons of water ice on the moon,” Bridenstine said.
That ice is air to breathe, water to drink and hydrogen to be used for rocket fuel, he added.
Investors who want to explore space, colonize Mars or convert the International Space Station into a longtime launch pad for commercial space travel and exploration will pay a premium in the next few years to tap into that resource and NASA must turn to those investors for help, according to Bridenstine.
The space launch system, or SLS, for example, is the biggest rocket ever built in American history and it is a critical piece of machinery that will help the U.S. launch endeavors to the moon and beyond.
“It’s got a weight larger than anything we’ve ever thrown. It’s taller than the Statue of Liberty and its size is big enough that we will be able to use it to put really big objects into space, deep space and in orbit around the moon,” Bridenstine said.
But NASA’s development on this technology is also behind and this year’s proposed budget includes cuts to the SLS program. It will likely be private investors who will help make progress, the agency’s administrator said.
The country should also be willing to take advantage of its preeminence in the global space race, he said. For example, the U.S. foots the bill for 77 percent of all activity on the International Space Station.
China would be more than willing to pony up even 100 percent of the cost to maintain the station and secure a foothold as a leader in space exploration and technology. But nations, industry leaders and stakeholders still flock to the United States.
“We bring more capability. We’re more transparent with discoveries. It gives one prestige to partner with the U.S. We’ve landed a rover on Mars and we’re the only nation that has ever landed a robot on another world. We did it eight times,” Bridenstine said.
That attraction can also be bolstered by what NASA plans to do to entice the public into space exploration again.
Bridenstine recounted the January 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, which killed seven people, including a school teacher.
He was only a child at the time, he said, but the memory of it was seared into his mind. NASA has to invest in changing perceptions in a rebranding of sorts to sustain projects of the future, he explained.
“This generation needs to see people walking on the moon and making the advancements necessary to get to Mars because this generation could actually see people walking on Mars,” he said.