Yet the planting ceremony in Pence’s backyard could also be a metaphor for the Trump administration’s ambitious plan to return Americans to the surface of the moon within five years: There is a real threat it will dry up by spring.
Congress hasn’t found the extra $30 billion the effort is expected to take, and Democrats who control the House worry that other prized NASA programs would suffer from what they have flat-out rejected as a political stunt . The space program is also not likely to be high on the list of priorities for lawmakers bogged down passing government funding bills and running an impeachment investigation heading into an election year.
The uncertainty abut the moon goal was palpable on Friday when former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon, was invited to make a few remarks. One event attendee, taking a deep breath, privately expressed concern about what the irascible Apollo 11 veteran, who is notorious for not always following a script , might say.
“I have great faith in … Artemis,” Aldrin told the gathering, referring to NASA’s effort to send humans to the moon . But then he gave a plug to billionaire Elon Musk, whose company also plans to send humans to the moon.
“I think maybe these people, SpaceX, their Starship, just may put some human beings on the moon before Artemis does,” Aldrin said, adding that NASA should also work more closely with other rocket companies like Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance.
President Donald Trump has made space exploration and development a top policy priority . He has empowered Pence to hasten the moon goal and revise regulations to lure more private investment in space, including encouraging a historic number of public-private partnerships to reach the moon.
But much of the push relies on NASA. And that means Congress, which so far doesn’t seem prepared to commit to the care and feeding that will be necessary to support the effort.
The government is funded under a continuing resolution that runs through Nov. 21. If the partisan fights make passing funding bills impossible and Congress enacts a year-long continuing resolution that locks in last year’s funding levels , NASA would “really be in jeopardy of losing 2024,” said Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the recently revived National Space Council, which Pence chairs.
Even if Congress can pass funding bills, the top House appropriator for NASA is not on board with the 2024 goal.
“Why does it suddenly need to speed up the clock by four years — time that is needed to carry out a successful program from a science and safety perspective?” Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House subcommittee that funds NASA, said at a hearing last month. “To a lot of members, the motivation appears to be just a political one, giving President Trump a moon landing in a possible second term, should he be reelected.”
The House Appropriations Committee’s proposed fiscal 2020 funding bill would give NASA only $22.32 billion, which does not include additional funding for the administration’s lunar ambitions.
The budget plan approved by the Senate would give NASA most but not all of the $1.6 billion in additional money that it requested for the new year as a down payment on the estimated $30 billion the effort will ultimately cost.
“Even if Washington, D.C. was working perfectly I think would be a hard sell,” said Phil Larson, a former space adviser for President Barack Obama.
He said the Apollo program during the Cold War space race with the Soviet Union was considered a national imperative. “If you talk to the American public right now, it might not be a national imperative for the majority of Americans.”
Trump’s top space advisers acknowledge the challenge. “How much can we grow the topline of NASA and how much can we moderate but not harm other parts of the NASA portfolio that people feel very dedicated to?” Pace said in an interview. “That’s the hard part. They want reassurances that we’re not going to gut other parts of the budget to solely go to exploration.”
But even just working toward such an ambitious goal has reignited the space program, he contends, saying it is getting NASA in shape to return humans beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972.
“If we miss 2024 — which I’m not admitting to — we’re still building a capability, which will benefit future administrations and the nation,” Pace said.
But with less than a year until the 2020 election, it’s not clear what would become of these priorities under a Democratic president.
Pace thinks that regardless of who occupies the White House the broader goals align with America’s interests. “We can change labels and talk about the details on the margin,” he said, “but the general thrust of moving beyond the space station, keeping partners and commercial folks involved and going to the moon, I’m pretty confident that will survive.”
Planting those seeds of a new space age was clearly where Pence was focused at Friday’s tree planting. POLITICO and a Scholastic News “kid reporter” were the only media invited to attend.
The tree was grown from a seed harvested from one of the original moon trees that came from seeds that flew to space in 1972 with Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa, who had previously fought wildfires with the U.S. Forest Service.
“You might have to put a few more seeds together,” the vice president remarked. “I think we also need to make plans to bring seeds back from Mars.”