NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is working to achieve President Trump's goal of returning humans to the moon by 2024.

Fifty Years After Apollo Mission, Challenges in Returning to the Moon

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is working to achieve President Trump’s goal of returning humans to the moon by 2024. Visual: NASA/Bill Ingalls

On Tuesday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the 1969 spaceflight mission that first put humans on the Moon. Amid its reminiscing, however, the agency faces challenges in making such a feat happen again.

When it comes to space exploration, priorities inevitably ebb and flow depending on who’s in the White House. While Obama focused on Mars, President Trump — much like George W. Bush and his father before him — has tasked NASA with returning to the Moon as a stepping stone to reaching the red planet.

“We are working right now, in fact, to put together a comprehensive plan on how we would conduct a Mars mission using the technologies that we will be proving at the moon,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference this week. “Remember, the moon is the proving ground. Mars is the destination.” But with limited funding, organizational reshuffling, and a long list of hardware and equipment yet to be built, it’s unclear whether astronauts will realistically be able to touch down on the lunar surface by their target date of 2024.

Currently, Bridenstine estimates the mission — dubbed Artemis after Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology — will require between $20 billion and $30 billion in funding, in addition to its regular budget. So far, the White House has only asked Congress for $1.6 billion. And along with funding issues, Artemis has already begun experiencing delays. In a report issued last month, the Government Accountability Office cited cost overruns for the rocket that’s set to be used in the initial phase of the mission. It’s launch, originally expected to occur in 2017, was pushed back until 2020 and now may not occur until 2021.

Unlike like the Apollo mission of yesteryear, part of Artemis’ goal — and NASA’s larger Moon to Mars effort — is to eventually establish a permanent human presence on the moon and build a foundation for an economy based around it. Numerous private companies are already involved in various stages of the project, from building the rocket to delivering payloads of scientific equipment. Others have announced grand plans for commercial spaceflights and orbiting hotels.

Even with Americans’ interest in space travel, however, few see sending humans to the Moon — or Mars — as a top priority. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last year, 63 percent of respondents said the U.S. should instead be prioritizing climate research here on Earth.

Also in the news:

• Early this week, Greek police arrested a 27-year-old shepherd from Crete in the murder of American molecular biologist Suzanne Eaton. The body of Eaton, a 59-year-old researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, was found deep in an abandoned World War II bunker on July 8, several days after she was reported missing from a scientific conference. The suspect, Giannis Paraskakis, reportedly owned the land where the bunker was located and police traced the crime to him based in part on the tracks of his car leading to the old Nazi building. Investigators said Paraskakis told them during a confession that he had been obsessively watching pornography as an escape from his “miserable” life and that the viewing inspired him to attack Eaton while she was out walking. According to police reports, he claimed to have hit her twice with his car to render her unconscious, put her in the car trunk,  dumped her down a shaft in the bunker, climbed down and raped her and left her there. The Max Planck Institute responded by publishing a lengthy tribute to Eaton, authored by colleagues, family, and friends, who described her as a talented and supportive scientist, innovative thinker, and joyful companion. (The Washington Post)

• Ten months after a massive fire broke out at Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, researchers are still coping with the disruption to their work, the emotional toll of the disaster, and the fear of similar catastrophes occurring due to government inaction. Some scientists, including museum entomologist Pedro Souza-Dias, have begun reconstructing their sample collections by requesting the return of items loaned out to other institutions and heading on field expeditions to gather new specimens. Others, like Beatriz Hörmanseder, a graduate fellow studying a prehistoric crocodile-like fossil lost in the fire, have had to make major changes to their research projects on short notice. And although government funding for the museum surged after the fire, some researchers say they are worried that the government may once again turn a blind eye, as it did after a similar blaze in 2010 struck the Butantan Institute in São Paulo. “As the flames of the fire cooled down, so did the attention of the government,” Francisco Franco, a biologist and curator at the Butantan, told Nature. “We must not forget.” (Nature)

• The last decade or so has seen a great blossoming of websites devoted to science and technology, and two sites in particular — Massive Science and The Conversation — are emblematic of new efforts to expand “science communication” and to improve scientists’ ability to share their thoughts and work directly with the public. Their essays are typically overseen by editors with years of journalistic experience, columnist Teresa Carr noted at Undark this week, but is the work journalism? To some extent it is, suggested Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. But others disagreed, including Gary Schwitzer, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and the longtime publisher of the recently shuttered Health News Review. Important caveats and context are too often left out of such material, Schwitzer said. Of course, whether the general public makes any distinction between these modes of communication is an open question, but a recent study by Schwitzer suggests that it matters greatly that they do. In that study, he and his colleagues found that “people who read a news story about a treatment that overemphasizes effectiveness, or omits limitations and risks, are more likely to consider that treatment beneficial than those who read a story free of ‘spin.;” (Undark)

• Cases of polio are surging in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two of only three countries — along with Nigeria — where the virus is still endemic. As of last week, there were more than a dozen polio paralysis cases across the two nations, concentrated in tribal areas near the border. That’s compared to just 14 cases as of this time last year. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), for each paralyzed person, there are some 200 others who are infected. Cases are known to increase during political transitions as polio eradication efforts get thrown off course. Rumors and distrust of health workers can also trigger families to refuse vaccinations for their children. In other countries including Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, vaccine-derived outbreaks have popped up, further threatening the global push for eradication. Despite the $16 billion spent on the effort over the past 30 years, Roland Sutter, coordinator of the Research and Product Development Team of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, told Science last week: “The biggest problem for me for a long time was recognizing that we truly have a problem, and business as usual will not get us to the finish line.” (The New York Times)

• Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk made waves Tuesday evening with the announcement that his secretive start-up, Neuralink, has taken a small step towards designing implantable technology that he one day hopes will let people control computers using only their thoughts. According to an unpublished research paper released by the company, the plan is to embed thousands of nanowires laced with electrodes deep into the brain capable of relaying neural signals to a small device mounted behind the ear, which will then wirelessly beam them to a computerized device. The paper stated that the threads had been placed correctly 87 percent of the time in 19 surgeries on rats, and Musk also let slip in his presentation that a monkey had used the technology to control a computer (the company has yet to confirm this statement officially). The technology remains a long way from being tested in humans in the clinic and even farther from being accessible to the average consumer seeking telepathic powers. “Unless the FDA is blinded by Elon’s star power,” Ryan Stellar, head of product management at Enzyme, a digital health start-up, told STAT, “a premarket trial of significant size will probably be needed, with a minimum observational period of two years, but perhaps as much as seven.” (STAT)

• And finally: On Wednesday, thousands of protesters gathered at Mauna Kea, on Hawaii’s Big Island, in an effort to stop construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, anticipated to be one of the world’s largest and most advanced astronomical observatories. The planned $1.4 billion telescope has long been a source of controversy as many native Hawaiians consider its site — prized by astronomers for its high elevation and clear skies — a sacred shrine for worship. On Monday, with the telescope’s construction finally set to begin after years of legal battles and protests, hundreds of demonstrators blocked the access road to the observatory site. The protests escalated on Wednesday: Police in riot gear temporarily lined the streets, and dozens of protestors were reportedly arrested, prompting Hawaii Governor David Ige to issue an emergency proclamation. Mauna Kea is already home to several observatories, including telescopes operated by the U.S., by the University of Hawaii, and by various international coalitions. It is unclear when construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope will begin. (Associated Press)