VP Mike Pence sets 5-year deadline for landing Americans at moon’s south pole

Vice President Mike Pence addresses the audience attending a meeting of the National Space Council at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama with an American flag, space artifacts and rocket models in the background. (NASA via YouTube)

Vice President Mike Pence today called for American astronauts to return to the moon in five years, laying down a challenge comparable to the 1960s-era Space Race.

“We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” Pence declared during a meeting of the National Space Council at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

He pointed to China’s Chang’e-4 mission, which put a lander and a rover on the moon’s far side in January. He also noted that Russia has been charging NASA as much as $80 million per seat for rides to the International Space Station in the wake of the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011.

“But it’s not just competition against our adversaries,” Pence said. “We’re also racing against our worst enemy: complacency.”

Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, acknowledged that the cost of an accelerated push back to the moon would be great, but said that “the costs of inaction are greater.” NASA would be given authority to meet the five-year goal by “any means necessary,” Pence promised.

He said development of the space agency’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket would be accelerated, But if the pace of work on the yet-to-be-flown SLS rocket isn’t sufficient to get astronauts to the moon by 2024, then the focus of rocket development would be shifted to commercial rockets.

Although Pence named no names, the obvious alternate candidate would be SpaceX and its Starship / Super Heavy launch system, which is in the earliest phase of ground testing.

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture could also come in for a piece of the action. For years, Blue Origin has been developing a lunar lander code-named Blue Moon that company executives have said could begin delivering cargo to the moon by 2023. Other companies, ranging from Lockheed Martin to space startups like Moon Express, are developing landers as well.

Pence said the first lunar missions would target the moon’s south pole, which is thought to harbor frozen water in deep craters and could also offer near-constant sunlight on those craters’ rims. Such resources could open the way for permanent settlements, which is a long-term goal of the Trump administration.

The space effort will also require development of supporting technology, such as in-situ resource utilization and nuclear reactors for the moon and in other off-world destinations, Pence said.

Moving on to Mars would be a longer-range goal.

A five-year time frame for landing humans on Mars is a significant speed-up of the schedule that Pence laid out seven months ago, when he said that the first astronauts would be sent to NASA’s yet-to-be-built Gateway outpost in lunar orbit by 2024.

The Gateway came in for scant mention during Pence’s remarks today, and some members of the space council’s Users Advisory Group have suggested that NASA should dispense with the orbital way-station concept. It’s not clear how NASA’s partners, including Russia and the European Space Agency, will receive a dramatic shift in the international plan for beyond-Earth exploration.

If the five-year plan is achieved, the first lunar landing could theoretically come as the crowning achievement of President Donald Trump’s second term. But in order to achieve it, the plan — and the billions of dollars in funding it would take to execute the plan — would have to be approved by Congress.

The mismatch between NASA’s ambitions and its budgets has been what killed off past grand initiatives, such as President George W. Bush’s back-to-the-moon Constellation program.

Even if NASA did get the money, it’s not clear at this point whether crewed moon landings could be safely executed in five years. But Pence said that if NASA as it’s currently structured wasn’t able to achieve the goal, “we need to change the organization, not the mission.”

Pence acknowledged that the plan is likely to face pushback.

“The conventional wisdom says that we’ll need more time to do what President Trump has challenged us to do: landing American astronauts on the moon in the next five years,” he said. “Some will say it’s too hard … it’s too risky … it’s too expensive. But the same was said back in 1962, when President Kennedy boldly declared that we, in his words, ‘choose to go to the moon in this decade.’

“Our space program was still in its infancy then,” Pence said. “NASA was barely two years old, and yet President Kennedy knew that history is not written by those who stubbornly cling to the status quo. History is written by those who dare to dream big and do the impossible.”

The key will be to see whether other players in space policy, and the American public, consider a new race to the moon to be as urgent as the moon race that America won 50 years ago.

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