Pence calls for human return to the moon in 2024



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WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence directed NASA to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024, a dramatic acceleration of the agency's human space exploration plans, but a guideline accompanied by few technical or fiscal details.

Pence, speaking at a meeting of the National Space Council on March 26 in Huntsville, Alabama, said a new sense of urgency is needed at NASA's plans due to delays in ongoing programs such as the Space Launch System.

"Under the direction of the president of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return the American astronauts to the moon within the next five years," Pence said. "To be clear: the first woman and the next man on the moon will be both American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil."

Pence went so far as to indicate where the landing would be. "To reach the moon in the next five years, we must select our destinations now," he said. "NASA already knows that the lunar south pole has great scientific, economic and strategic value, but now it's time to commit to going there."

This schedule would require a major acceleration of many elements of NASA's plans that previously required the landing of humans on the Moon by 2028. Among them is the SLS, a heavy-duty rocket whose continuing delays have prompted NASA to consider changing the next test the Orion spacecraft for commercial vehicles.

This option now seems to be off the table. "I opened the window to have business opportunities to launch the Orion crew capsule around the moon," said Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator. "There is an opportunity there in the future. I'll also tell you that if we want to reach 2024 we have to have the SLS. We have to speed up your agenda.

Bridenstine also endorsed the continued development of the Upper Exploration Internship (EUS), which the government's budget request, launched just 15 days ago, indefinitely deferred. "We're going to need a Higher Exploration Stage, and we're going to need this early: for EM-3, the third launch of the Space Launch System."

While Bridenstine said he was confident that the first launch of SLS, which was in danger of slipping until 2021, could occur in 2020, Pence offered a warning that appeared to be directed at Boeing, the main supplier of the SLS central stage. "We are committed to Marshall [Space Flight Center], "he said." But to be clear, we are not committed to any contractor. If our current contractors can not reach this goal, we will find whoever wishes. "

"If commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets will be," Pence added. "Urgency should be our watchword."

Pence also seemed open to other alternative approaches. "The president directed NASA and the administrator Jim Bridenstine to achieve this goal by any means necessary," he said. "We should focus on mission by the means. You should consider all the options and platforms available to achieve our goals. "

Pence cited as a reason for this new urgency competition from Russia and China, although no country has formally committed to plans to land humans on the moon in the mid-2020s. "We are also running against our worst enemy, the complacency, "he said, citing as an example the launch of Sputnik in 1957 that shocked the United States.

The vice president's call for action was accompanied by a few details, including how the program will be accelerated and at what cost. The council unanimously adopted a set of recommendations on these plans at the end of the two and a half hour meeting without debate, but the content of these recommendations was not immediately disclosed. NASA also did not disclose further details about its plans, although Bridenstine's comments at the hearing suggested that they still included the development of a lunar gateway that would allow access to the lunar poles.

"You gave us a fee today and it's on time," Bridenstine told Pence. "NASA will do everything in its power to meet that vision, meet that deadline."

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