Pence: Americans Will Land at Moon’s South Pole By 2024

Pence: Americans Will Land at Moon’s South Pole By 2024

Vice President Mike Pence announced a new goal for the U.S. human spaceflight program today — landing astronauts at the lunar South Pole within the next 5 years.  President Trump has directed NASA to accomplish that “by any means necessary” and if NASA cannot do it, it is NASA, not the mission, that must change, Pence warned.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine replied that NASA is ready.

Vice President Mike Pence speaking at the National Space Council meeting in Huntsville, AL, March 26, 2019. Screengrab.

Pence spoke at a meeting of the White House National Space Council, which he chairs, in Huntsville, AL,  home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Laying out a bold near-term vision for human spaceflight, Pence said the United States will return American astronauts to the surface of the Moon within the next 5 years.  Specifically, they will land at the lunar South Pole, an area of great interest for scientific and resource utilization purposes.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine replied that NASA “is up to the task. We are ready to meet it.”  Later he announced that NASA is creating a new Moon to Mars Mission Directorate to focus on formulation and execution of exploration development activities.

Pence criticized the recent news that the first launch of NASA’s new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which is managed at Marshall, will be delayed by yet another year, to 2021.  “That’s not good enough.  We can do better than that.”  If commercial rockets can get astronauts to the Moon by 2024, that is the path NASA should follow, he added.

Boeing is the SLS prime contractor.  Pence said the Administration is committed to Marshall, but not “to any one contractor. If our current contractor can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will.”  In closing the meeting, Pence said that “with deepest respect” to Marshall’s workforce, “it’s time to step up, redouble efforts” and ensure SLS can meet the Trump Administration’s objectives.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (center) speaking at the National Space Council meeting, March 26, 2019. Screengrab.

Despite those strong words from the Vice President, SLS also got some good news today.  At the Council meeting, Bridenstine defended SLS, asserting he is confident it still can meet its current July 2020 launch schedule by eliminating unnecessary steps.  In a later press release, he said a recent study of whether two commercial rockets could substitute for SLS’s first flight, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), concluded it was not feasible within the required timeframe and budget.  The results “reaffirmed our commitment to SLS.”

This year is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first human landing on the Moon.  The last Apollo lunar mission, Apollo 17, took place in 1972.  Under the Obama Administration, NASA was focused on sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, bypassing trips to the lunar surface in part to save the costs of building lunar landers and associated infrastructure needed to support a human presence on the Moon.  Pursuant to the 2010 NASA authorization act, NASA initiated the SLS program in 2011.  In 2014, NASA committed to the first SLS launch in November 2018.  That then slipped to December 2019-June 2020.

In December 2017, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-1 (SPD-1) in December 2017, restoring the goal of landing humans on the Moon and stressing that the program should be sustainable.  NASA has been developing notional plans for doing that.  Its FY2020 budget request, submitted to Congress this month, envisions humans setting foot on the Moon in 2028.

Pence’s announcement today is to move that up to 2024, which would be the last year of a second Trump term if he wins reelection.

Landing on the Moon requires a launch vehicle, crew capsule, lunar lander, and spacesuits for the astronauts to walk on the Moon.  SLS and the Orion crew capsule have been under development for years, but NASA only reached out to the commercial sector for ideas about a human-capable lunar lander last month.  NASA’s FY2020 budget documentation is silent on funding for developing lunar spacesuits.

Pence offered no cost estimate for accelerating the program.  He said only that the Administration will work with Congress to get the necessary resources. The senior Senator from Alabama, Sen. Richard Shelby, chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and Rep. Robert Aderholt, from Alabama’s 4th District, is the top Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, but that is no guarantee they can deliver the requisite funding amid record deficits and fights over budget caps.

The Administration itself proposed a cut to NASA’s budget for FY2020: $21.019 billion compared to its current funding level of $21.500 billion. It also proposes terminating activities that the Administration knows are congressional priorities (two Earth science programs, the next space telescope, and STEM education programs).

Essentially, at a time when several NASA programs (SLS, Mars 2020, James Webb Space Telescope) are experiencing cost overruns and schedule delays, and the Administration is proposing a budget cut coupled with termination of programs it knows Congress is likely to restore, it now will be asking for an infusion of funds to accelerate a Moon landing by four years.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said in an emailed statement to this evening that she looks forward to listening to Bridenstine’s explanation at a hearing scheduled for April 2. “President Trump is calling for deep, damaging cuts to much of the nation’s Federal R&D enterprise.  Yet just today, at the same time NASA’s proposed budget would cancel important science missions, [the] Vice President is now saying NASA has to find the money to land astronauts on the Moon … within the next five years.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Aviation and Space Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said the Moon is fine, but he wants the focus to remain on getting humans to Mars.

Bridenstine is already scheduled to testify to the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA tomorrow, March 27.

The question many will ask is — why?  Pence argues that “we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.”  China and Russia are competitors, but “we’re also racing against our worst enemy: complacency.”

Urgency must be our watchword.  Failure to achieve our goal to return an American astronaut to the Moon in the next five years is not an option.  — Vice President Mike Pence

Directing Bridenstine to do that “by any means necessary” and to “focus on the mission over the means” may open the trade space for implementing this goal, but it will take money no matter what path is followed.

On July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, President George H.W. Bush stood on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum and announced that the United States would return astronauts to the Moon and go on to Mars.  Congress did not provide the funding and the program died.  On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush stood at NASA Headquarters and announced astronauts would return to the Moon by 2020 and then go to Mars and beyond. NASA initiated the Constellation program, but it was terminated by President Obama because it was too costly.

On December 11, 2017, President Donald J. Trump signed SPD-1 restoring lunar landings to NASA’s human exploration plans. Today Vice President Pence put a date on it — 2024.  Will it happen this time, or become just another footnote in space exploration history?

Administrator Bridenstine has promised in the past that “this won’t be Lucy and the football again,” a metaphor for futile hope that the next time will be different from the last.  Time will tell if he is right.

Note:  this story has been updated.

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