Pence Sticks With the Plan — Moon in 2024, Then Mars

Pence Sticks With the Plan — Moon in 2024, Then Mars

Vice President Mike Pence celebrated the Apollo 11 50th anniversary at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) today. While President Trump gives the appearance of wavering on the need to return to the Moon before going to Mars, Pence exhibits no such doubts. He again said American astronauts will walk on the Moon in 2024, what is now called the Artemis program.  As he spoke, three new crew members were on their way to the International Space Station (ISS) where they will dock this evening.  Knowing they were launching on this historic day, they designed their mission patch to commemorate Apollo 11 and tie it to the present (ISS) and future (Artemis).

At 12:28 pm ET, a trio of international astronauts lifted off in their Soyuz MS-13 capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  NASA’s Drew Morgan, ESA’s Luca Parmitano, and Roscosmos’s Alexander Skvortsov are enroute to the ISS.  They will dock at 6:51 pm ET and after about two hours of system and pressurization tests, will open the hatch into their home away from home about 8:50 pm ET.

They participated in designing the crew patch for their “Expedition 60” mission, as the Apollo 11 crew did back in 1969.  Though the names of crew members typically are included on these mission patches, the Apollo 11 crew felt strongly that they were representatives of everyone on Earth, not just three Americans, and chose to omit their names.  In honor of that legacy, the ISS Expedition 60 crew did the same.

The ISS Expedition 60 and Apollo 11 mission patches. The Expedition 60 patch is described by NASA as follows: Three stars with the Moon superimposed forms the letter “L,” the Latin symbol for 50. The Moon is depicted as a waxing crescent, as it was on July 20, 1969. The familiar silhouette of the International Space Station is visible, flying across the night sky. Stars, numerous and bright as seen from the space station, form the shape of an eagle in the same pose as on the iconic patch of the Apollo 11 mission. The sunrise represents the fact that we are still in the dawn of humanity’s exploration of the solar system. The hexagonal shape of the patch represents the space station’s cupola, with the six points of the hexagon symbolizing the six crewmembers of Expedition 60. Just like on the Apollo 11 mission patch, the names and nationalities are deliberately omitted as a way to highlight that space missions — then, now, and in the future — are for Earth and all humankind.  The Apollo 11 patch is described by NASA’s history office as follows: The American eagle, symbolic of the United States, was about to land on the Moon. In its talons, an olive branch indicated the crew “came in peace for all mankind.” The Earth, the place from which the crew came and would return safely in order to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the nation, rested on a field of black, representing the vast unknown of space.

The international character of human spaceflight is taken for granted today, but is far different from the 1960s when the United States and Soviet Union were racing to put the first humans on the Moon. The United States won that race 50 years ago today when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in their Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module.

Celebrations of the Apollo 11 landing have been taking place all week and will continue, many of them including Lunar Module Pilot Aldrin, Command Module Pilot Mike Collins, and Armstrong’s sons, Rick and Mark.  Armstrong passed away in 2012.

Aldrin and Rick Armstrong joined Pence and other dignitaries at KSC today.  Collins was not there, although he had been at KSC on Tuesday, the anniversary of the launch, and he and Aldrin were both at the White House yesterday to meet with President Trump.

Both advocate going directly to Mars without returning to the Moon.  That was the position of the Obama Administration, but Trump overturned it soon after taking office, restoring the goal of landing astronauts back on the Moon before going to Mars in Space Policy Directive 1.

Pence took it a step further on March 26, directing NASA to put “the next man and the first woman” on the Moon by 2024, the last year of a second Trump term assuming he is reelected.  NASA is implementing those instructions, but Trump himself seems ambivalent about the Moon.  Just yesterday during the White House event, he turned to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and intently asked if the Moon really is a necessary stopover on the way to Mars. Bridenstine rose to the challenge and explained why, yes, it is a prerequisite from NASA’s point of view, but it was not clear if Trump was convinced.

Today, Pence stuck with the same script he used on March 26 — first the Moon, then Mars.

And standing before you today, I am proud to report, at the direction of the President of the United States of America, America will return to the moon within the next five years, and the next man and the first woman on the moon will be American astronauts. We’re going back. —  Vice President Mike Pence

Trump also issued a Space Exploration Day 2019 message today that said he was instructing NASA to return to the Moon “and to take the next giant leap — sending Americans to Mars.”

Getting humans back on the Moon will be expensive.  Bridenstine says again and again that the only way it can happen is with bipartisan support of Congress, which must appropriate the requisite funds.  Pence acknowledged four members of Congress in the audience at today’s event, calling them “some of the greatest champions of American leadership in space” in Congress: Reps. Steve Scalise (R-LA), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Brian Babin (R-TX), and Bill Posey (R-FL).  All are Republicans.

Separately, a number of Republican and Democratic members of Congress, including top Democratic leaders, tweeted Apollo 50 congratulations, but the only one expressing enthusiasm for funding “the next giant leap” is Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS).

He chairs the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA, so his support is vital, but he expressed exasperation at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing this week over his inability to get the Trump Administration to tell him how much it will cost. The Administration has requested $1.6 billion additional for NASA in FY2020, but Bridenstine told him the numbers for FY2021 and beyond will not be sent to Congress until next February when the FY2021 budget request is submitted.

Two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush in 1989 and George W. Bush in 2004, also called on NASA to return humans to the Moon and go on to Mars.  Neither of those programs, the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) and Constellation, survived because they were not willing to back up their rhetoric with the necessary funding. Pence promised today this time will be different: “unlike in years past, we will have the budgets to match it.”

Time will tell if that stands up. Bridenstine estimated last month that Artemis will cost $20-30 billion on top of what NASA was planning.  That would be $4-6 billion annually in addition to a roughly $21 billion per year budget.  He now says it might be done for less than $20 billion since NASA is counting on public-private partnerships to pay for part of it.  But there are no guarantees other than that it is going to require a lot of taxpayer dollars.  He repeatedly stresses that taking money from other parts of NASA to pay for a Moon landing is politically untenable.  As a former Congressman, he has particular expertise when making that prediction.

As the nation celebrates the historic Apollo 11 mission and continues work on the ISS, the rousing rhetoric of returning to the Moon and going  to Mars is undoubtedly appealing to space aficionados, but veterans of these debates are understandably skeptical.  Bridenstine says it will not be “Lucy and the football” again, but as long as he cannot even provide a cost estimate for a program that is suppossed to be completed just 5 years from now, questions will linger.

The KSC event today took place in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Facility where Lockheed Martin is building the Orion capsule needed to take crews to the Moon and beyond.  The Orion program has been underway since 2006 when it was chosen for George W. Bush’s Constellation program.  The Obama Administration cancelled Constellation, but Congress insisted NASA build a new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  NASA selected Orion as the MPCV so it has continued on.

Lockheed Martin chairman, president and CEO Marillyn Hewson participated in the ceremony today standing next to Orion.  She noted that this particular capsule will be used for the uncrewed test flight, Artemis-1. Pence said the capsule is “complete and ready to begin preparations for its historic first flight.”

Vice President Mike Pence standing next to the Orion capsule at Kennedy Space Center, FL, July 20, 2019. Source: Pence tweet (@VP)
L-R: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Vice President Mike Pence, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Rick Armstrong (son of the late Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong) Source: Pence tweet (@VP)

The next step is for Orion to be mated to its Service Module, which is being provided by ESA as part of a barter arrangement in exchange for ESA’s use of ISS.  Other hardware will be added and the entire unit shipped to NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio for testing.  It then will return to KSC for final processing and inspections prior to being mated with the SLS when it arrives at KSC.  Bridenstine told the Senate Commerce Committee this week that the Artemis-1 launch is now expected in 2021.  NASA initially committed to November 2018 for that launch. The date slipped to December 2019-June 2020 and now to 2021.

The first flight of SLS/Orion with a crew is Artemis-2. Bridenstine said that will take place in 2022 or 2023.  Artemis-3, in 2024, will send a crew to the lunar surface via a Gateway in lunar orbit under the current plan.

No dates have been officially set by the Trump Administration for getting humans to Mars, although Bridenstine said this week he “will not rule out 2033” as a possibility for a human Mars landing.  It is a date favored by Mars advocates, many of whom see no need for returning to the Moon.  A recent independent analysis for NASA by the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute concluded that even getting humans in orbit around Mars — not landing, which is significantly more difficult — is “infeasible” by 2033, but Bridenstine argues not everyone agrees with its assumptions.

The Moon versus Mars debate has been waged since the last Apollo crew left the Moon in 1972, but without a significant boost in funding it is not clear when either will happen.

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