To the Moon in 2026!

A goal for the nation’s 250th birthday?

Harrison "Jack" Schmitt on the moon, December 1972 -- one of the last photos taken on the lunar surface. Is it time to go back? (NASA)
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Space nerds are a hopeful bunch. Every year before the State of the Union address, they work themselves into a tizzy, batting around rumors like party balloons: Some Big Space Thing might be mentioned!

The President’s speech on Tuesday, though technically not a State-of-the-Union address, was preceded by the obligatory rumor, and did in fact include a nod to space. Here’s the relevant passage, which came late in the speech:

On our 100th anniversary, in 1876, citizens from across our nation came to Philadelphia to celebrate America's centennial.  At that celebration, the country's builders and artists and inventors showed off their creations.

Alexander Graham Bell displayed his telephone for the first time.

Remington unveiled the first typewriter.  An early attempt was made at electric light.

Thomas Edison showed an automatic telegraph and an electric pen.

Imagine the wonders our country could know in America's 250th year.

Think of the marvels we can achieve if we simply set free the dreams of our people.

Cures to illnesses that have always plagued us are not too much to hope.

American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.

“Distant worlds” could mean pretty much anything, and no other information was given. So if it’s hard facts you want, stop reading now. Here goes some shameless speculation:

First, a general rule of thumb about space politics, at least in this century:  Democrats Are For Mars, Republicans Are For The Moon. Conservatives like the prospect of lunar commerce and the potential military value of lunar “high ground.” Liberals are drawn to visions of Mars colonies staffed by multicultural crews, doing science.

More concretely, there is evidence that the new administration is interested in a return to the moon, or the vicinity of the moon. And such a plan could have bipartisan support. Barring a huge boost in NASA’s budget, it’s really the only practical near-term (within a decade) goal for government astronauts, considering that the Obama administration’s asteroid rendezvous never got any political traction.

So it will be no surprise if NASA once again looks moonward. When, though? Trump’s mention of 1876 may be a hint. The year 2026 will mark the nation’s 250th birthday, and space spectaculars are often timed for significant anniversaries, from Laika (the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution) to the Viking landing on Mars during the U.S. bicentennial year.

Nine years is enough time to start setting up lunar infrastructure, possibly even land an astronaut or two, although that would require a more ambitious and faster-paced program than NASA has managed in years. A new administration looking to make its mark may push the agency to do just that.

So there you have it. We’re going to land people on the moon (note the President’s use of the term “footprints”) in 2026.  Remember that you heard it here first, and that it was nothing but a guess.

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