Douglas Cooke: Trump's moon plan is a good one -- too bad his critics (and the media) badly want to derail it

It is disappointing that some reporters have published misleading articles on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket development, which is essential to completing the United States’ upcoming Exploration Mission 1 to the moon and securing the country’s leadership in human space exploration. 

The Obama White House's decisions, which included canceling the Space Shuttle Program in 2011 with no near-term replacement and leaving its Orbiters to become museum pieces, tragically set back America's ability to launch its own astronauts into space. The country is dependent on Russia to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) to this day. Instead of accepting the new "America first" vision for NASA, which involves using SLS to bolster U.S. exploration capabilities, reporters fed by critics are, intentionally or not, distorting the current administration’s words.

SLS development, along with Orion, its companion crew vehicle, are critical, as they are designed to be “step 1” for a sustainable program of human exploration of the moon and Mars. Without SLS and Orion, America will not reach the moon or deep space anytime soon. NASA knows this because it has studied the possible alternatives for over 30 years.

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Unfortunately, though, stopping a successful moon mission from occurring under the Trump administration seems to be exactly what some critics want, and as a result, they peddle misinformation that unfortunately trickles into the media.

For example, a recent NBC article took quotes from Vice President Mike Pence and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine out of context. The misrepresentations included statements from Pence at the March 26 National Space Council Meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, especially his mention of how the administration is "not committed to any one contractor" and that "if our current contractors can't meet this objective, then we'll find ones that will." It also leveraged Bridenstine’s remark that “there is nothing sacred here that is off the table" as purported evidence of SLS being "doomed."

It is unfortunate there have been some problems during SLS development, but to abandon it now due to misinformation would be to relinquish our leadership in human space flight, and we will be watching Chinese Taikonauts explore the moon instead.

What wasn’t stated in the article is that in the same speech, Pence said, “We must accelerate the SLS program to meet this objective.” Furthermore, in a House hearing that occurred on March 27, Bridenstine also addressed this point, stating, "If we're going to have boots on the moon by 2024, as the vice president indicated yesterday ... we're going to need SLS."

Bridenstine made NASA’s intent clear in a press release issued that same day, noting that the results of a two-week study "reaffirmed our commitment to the SLS."

Yet, these excerpts from Bridenstine and Pence’s remarks were left out of the piece.

The Trump White House evaluated multiple options. That is fair to say. Many possibilities were evaluated in the initial selection of the SLS design. They compared lift capacity, payload volume and diameter, budget, and scheduling to best meet the needs of the country. That said, the administration is still fully supportive of landing Americans on the moon by 2024 with SLS, and anyone who reads the whole of Pence and Bridenstine's remarks can see that.

Both Bridenstine and Pence conveyed positive reasoning and admonitions for NASA to succeed with SLS. Their messages were appropriate to intensify NASA employees and contractors’ efforts to complete SLS and meet challenging new milestones successfully. 

It is the role of leadership to encourage and keep pressure on the workforce and point to areas that need improvement. Completing a human-rated rocket development of this scale is highly complex, and there are always technical problems with the development of any system. Budget availability, organization of the effort, and the process to bring it to completion are complex as well.

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Despite all this, the SLS team is succeeding. Flight hardware is being completed and tested. To attempt a substitution for this nearly-complete capability would be costly and even more time-consuming. The goal of landing Americans on the moon by 2024 would simply not be possible any other way.

Far from being “doomed,” the SLS is essential to enabling human exploration of the solar system. Any valid study will show that, and NASA is proving it through current studies. It is unfortunate there have been some problems during SLS development, but abandoning it now due to misinformation would be to relinquish our leadership in human space flight, and we will be watching Chinese taikonauts explore the moon instead.