Go For Launch: Pence orders NASA to return astronauts to the moon in 2024 ‘by any means necessary’
Speaking before the National Space Council in Huntsville, Alabama, Tuesday afternoon, Pence did not mince words when laying out NASA’s new, quicker timeline for returning to the lunar surface “by any means necessary.”
“The National Space Council will send recommendations to the president that will launch a major course correction for NASA and reignite that spark of urgency that propelled America to the vanguard of space exploration 50 years ago,” Pence said. “…If NASA is not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization — not the mission.”
The space agency’s initial plan was to send astronauts to the moon by 2028, about 18 years after NASA began developing the rocket to make the journey — the Space Launch System. But SLS has suffered massive cost overruns and schedule delays that have put in question whether even 2028 was a reasonable objective.
“Ladies and gentlemen, that’s just not good enough,” Pence said. “…It took us eight years to get to the moon the first time 50 years ago when we had never done it before.”
Now, with the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing looming over NASA, Pence said the space agency must develop “an all-hands-on-deck approach” to reach the council’s preferred lunar landing site — the moon’s south pole — in the next five years. But the changes needed to do it will cause NASA to make a sharp pivot that would include seriously considering commercial partnerships.
Just two weeks ago, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said NASA was already considering using two heavy-lift commercial rockets — instead of SLS — to get the agency’s astronaut capsule, Orion, in orbit around the moon by NASA’s target date of 2020.
The test mission precursors to a lunar landing had already been pushed back to 2021 because of delays with SLS and its primary contractor Boeing.
Now, Pence said the administration is no longer “committed to any one contractor.”
“If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we will find ones that will,” Pence said. “If American industry can provide critical commercial services without government development, then we’ll buy them. And if commercial rockets are the only way to get Americans to the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be.”
But Bridenstine had news for Pence as well. Later in the council meeting, the NASA administrator told the vice president that SLS is, in fact, back on track for a 2020 Orion test mission. Bridenstine hinted at a reversal to the new plan last week when he tweeted that the “NASA and Boeing teams are working overtime to accelerate the launch schedule” of SLS.
In Huntsville Tuesday, Bridenstine said NASA may have the opportunity to use commercial rockets in the future, but that he is now “confident we can get to that first launch by 2020 for SLS and actually flew a crew capsule around the moon.”
In a statement, Boeing said it has “implemented changes in both processes and technologies to accelerate production, without sacrificing safety or quality,” and that it remained “on schedule to deliver the first SLS core stage to NASA by the end of this year.”
NASA’s plan to use commercial rockets would have involved two rockets and several complicated maneuvers in orbit. Boeing said that NASA’s decision to still go with SLS affirmed that the rocket, billed as the most powerful in the world, “remains the best approach to achieve our lunar objectives.”
Still, commercial companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are looking at where they might fit into NASA’s plans. Asked on Twitter if the new Starship spacecraft SpaceX is building for lunar missions could be ready in five years, Musk said, “I think so. For sure worth giving it our best shot!”
Ultimately, Pence said the administration is envisioning a permanent base on the moon and developing technologies that would take astronauts to Mars and other destinations in deep space.
A lunar mission would put the United States again firmly ahead of its competitors in China and Russia. The U.S. has paid Russia more than $80 million a seat to send American astronauts to the International Space Station since 2011, and China recently landed its Chang’e 4 lander on the far side of the moon.
The rules of space, Pence said, “will be written by those who get their first.”
“Make no mistake about it, we are in space race today,” he said, “just like we were in the 1960s — and the stakes are even higher.”
The challenges of the moon
Even with the new direction, a lunar landing in 2024 will face a number of difficulties before it can become a reality. Historically, lunar missions have struggled to secure funding and congressional support across administrations.
In 2005, NASA’s Constellation Program set out to test Orion by 2014 and return to the moon by 2020. It was canceled in 2009. Before it, the Space Exploration Initiative proposed in 1989 died “amid great congressional indifference,” said Roger Handberg, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida who focuses on space and military policy.
“It is not one of those times when you say, ‘when pigs fly,’ but close — unless the plan is carefully thought through and executed,” Handberg said.
Money’s a challenge, too. NASA’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget, though focused on lunar missions, was $500 million short of what the agency got in 2019.
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