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National Space Council meeting
Vice President Mike Pence addresses the audience attending a meeting of the National Space Council at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., 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 Space Race.

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

For an example, 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. In follow-up comments, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Boeing and other SLS contractors had worked out a plan to keep the rocket’s first round-the-moon test launch, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, on track for 2020.

If the pace of SLS development isn’t sufficient to get astronauts to the moon by 2024, then the program’s focus would shift to commercial rockets, Pence said. Although he 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 heavy payloads 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 the moon 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. Just last month, Bridenstine made a pitch to have commercial ventures build the hardware needed to put astronauts on the moon via the Gateway by 2028.

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.

In a statement, Lockheed Martin said a schedule aimed at putting humans on the moon by 2024 was “aggressive but achievable.” It put forward a mission concept including a stripped-down version of the Gateway and a lunar lander that makes use of technologies from the Orion deep-space capsule that Lockheed Martin is developing for NASA.

Meanwhile, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet that it’d be “worth giving it our best shot” to land astronauts on the moon with his company’s Starship spaceship. “It would be so inspiring for humanity to see humanity return to the moon!” Musk wrote.

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.

In other developments:

  • Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced that the Federal Aviation Administration has posted a proposed rule to streamline federal commercial space requirements for future launch and re-entry operations and for launch-site providers. The measure follows through on the White House’s Space Policy Directive 2, issued last year.
  • White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier announced the release of a new National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan to boost preparedness for events such as solar storms and flares.
  • Bridenstine said NASA issued its first task order for commercial delivery services to the moon today. As many as nine teams are expected to bid to deliver the first set of science instruments and technology demonstrations to the moon under the terms of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. The contract is expected to be awarded in May, and NASA says the mission could fly by the end of this year if a commercial lander is ready.
  • During one of the panel discussions following Pence’s remarks, University of Colorado planetary scientist Jack Burns said the moon program would “urgently need” a robotic mission to prospect for water ice at the lunar south pole “in the next couple of years.” He also called for a robotic mission to bring samples from the lunar far side back to Earth.

Update for 8 a.m. PT March 27: We’ve revised this story to be more precise about the venue for the meeting, placing it at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville rather than at Marshall Space Flight Center. Thanks to Noozguy for pointing that out in the comments.

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