Pace: Ambitious Goal, Near-Term Results Needed for Lunar Exploration

Pace: Ambitious Goal, Near-Term Results Needed for Lunar Exploration

Scott Pace said today that returning humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024 provides an ambitious goal and near-term results needed to show progress as the United States once again becomes a spacefaring nation beyond low Earth orbit.  Although only minimal capabilities are needed in the next 5 years, the Gateway and other facilities will grow over time to support “never-ending firsts,” not just flags and footprints.

Scott Pace, Executive Secretary, National Space Council.

Pace is the Executive Secretary of the White House National Space Council, which is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.  On March 26, Pence announced the goal of landing humans at the South Pole of the Moon in 2024.  NASA had notional plans to land in 2028.  The White House has not yet submitted an amended FY2020 budget request to Congress showing how much more it will cost and where the money will come from.

Pace spoke at a symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) held at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, D.C.  The audience was filled with members of the space science community and he stressed that science is one of the reasons for returning to the Moon.

The scientific community itself spelled out a range of potential lunar science investigations in a  2007 report from the National Academies and a 2016 roadmap from NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group.  One important role Pace envisions for scientists is determining whether water can be extracted from the lunar regolith, particularly at the South Pole.  Like the Gold Rush on Earth “there may be a Water Rush on the Moon” someday, but only if it is accessible.

Building a Gateway in lunar orbit is the first step. Initially it will have “minimal” capabilities, but over time will grow and someday include a fuel depot that will enable repeated trips to the Moon and other destinations like Mars.  A fuel station will also be needed on the surface, akin to McMurdo Station in the Antarctic, to enable exploration of the entire lunar surface. Nuclear power is part of his vision for lunar operations, too.  While not needed for the 2024 goal, it is “critical” for sustainability.

Asked how this Moon/Mars program itself will be sustainable when efforts in the past have failed, Pace said the key is to not tie the effort to an individual personality or political party, but to “enduring national interests.”  And while NASA will lead, commercial, international, and academic partners are also needed.

Importantly, a “steady series of efforts” is necessary to show results to the American people.  For now, that means tightening the schedule, pulling in goals while keeping a long term vision, and establishing politically realistic time horizons.

Pace has an extensive career in space policy and was a high ranking NASA official in the George W. Bush Administration when the Constellation program was underway.  The Trump plan is similar in many respects to Constellation, but with a stronger focus on commercial and international partners.  In a videotaped presentation today, ESA Director General Jan Woerner said that Europe is “eager” to work on the Gateway.

The Trump Administration’s plan is receiving mixed reviews.  Skepticism is fueled by the history of failed attempts in the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations to start such programs and the lack of a budget request for this one.  The FY2020 NASA budget request submitted to Congress just two weeks before Pence’s speech not only did not include funds for such an effort, but proposed a half-billion cut to NASA’s budget.  It even deferred capabilities that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine now says are critical to achieving the 2024 date like the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) and 2nd Mobile Launcher for the Space Launch System (SLS).

Bridenstine told the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on April 2 that a revised budget request would be submitted by April 15.  That date has come and gone.  A NASA spokesman told last week only that  “We are in the process of evaluating and discussing what additional resources will be needed” and will “provide further information in the near future.”

The NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee meets next week.  Hopefully NASA officials will provide more information on how it will meet the Moon 2024 goal at that time.  The clock is ticking.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.