Trump really, really, really wants to see America on the Moon again. Preferably before 2024, which just so happens to coincide with what would be his final year as president if he was to win a second term. And so to hurry things on a bit, he has proposed dipping into a fresh funding pot – college aid.
The vast majority of that money ($1.6 billion) would go to NASA, providing a cash injection for its lunar space mission and other programs. According to The New York Times, $651 million would go to the Space Launch System and Orion Spacecraft – i.e. the rocket and exploration vehicle designed to take astronauts to the Moon and beyond. NASA has also requested $132 million to develop new technologies (e.g. those that turn lunar ice to water), $90 million to put towards the exploration of the Moon by robot, and an additional $1 billion to build a lunar landing system.
According to officials, the diversion of funding from the Pell Grant pot will not affect the low-income students currently on the program, who rely on it to fund their college education. Instead, it will utilize the surplus funding that has built up over the past eight years as enrolment in the grant program has declined (even as student debt has increased).
The budget office says the surplus is currently close to $9 billion. According to AP, Trump’s proposal would take the total amount of surplus to be redirected to other projects up to $3.9 billion as $2 billion had already been proposed.
“This does not cut any spending for Pell Grant programs as the budget continues to ensure all students will get their full Pell Grant and keeps the program on sound fiscal footing,” said Office of Management and Budget spokesperson Wesley Denton, AP reports.
But not everyone agrees. Advocates of the grants say that a looting of funds could put the long-term sustainability of the program at risk, leaving it vulnerable to a sudden recession or spike in demand.
“Deep cuts to funding and eligibility for campus-based aid, college access programs, and a significant raid of Pell Grant funds would harm low- and middle-income families and their ability to access and succeed in higher education,” said Patty Murray (D-WA), the senior Democrat on the Senate education committee, Inside Higher Ed reported in March 2017.
And, as some have pointed out on Twitter, pulling money from the Pell Grant could have a detrimental impact on NASA and science more generally.
Trump first announced that he wanted to return to the Moon in 2017 – 45 years to the day Apollo 17 touched down on the lunar surface – with ambitious aspirations to then establish a permanent base from which to launch to Mars. Cue a rapid re-shift in NASA priorities, who up until that point had been preparing for a mission to the Red Planet.
While the original plan was to land on the Moon before 2028, Vice President Mike Pence ramped up the timeframe on this new lunar mission in March, calling for completion by 2024. NASA officials have said that it is possible but difficult and will require coordinated efforts from those in NASA and the government, particularly those in the Office of Management and Budget.
"I’m skeptical that any Congress, Republican or Democrat, will add billions of taxpayer dollars for a Moon program,” said Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder and former White House space adviser during the Obama administration, reports Quartz.
"What is needed instead are more innovative ways of doing business with the $20-plus billion in taxpayer dollars given to NASA each year."