SALT LAKE CITY — America will not only be returning to the moon by 2024, NASA says, they’ll be going there to stay.
At the fifth meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, Alabama, on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence called for NASA to land an astronaut on the moon by the year 2024.
"It's time to redouble our effort," Pence said. "It can happen, but it will not happen unless we increase the pace."
The initial plan was to land astronauts near the moon’s south pole in 2028, 56 years after the last Apollo moon walk, according to Forbes, but Pence has challenged NASA to accelerate that landing.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine released a statement on Tuesday following Pence’s remarks, saying, “It is the right time for this challenge, and I assured the Vice President that we, the people of NASA, are up to the challenge.”
Bridenstine said that within the next few weeks, NASA will take action to accomplish the five-year goal, including establishing a Moon to Mars Mission Directorate and focusing increased efforts on four areas of NASA’s exploration campaign: low-Earth orbit, the moon, Mars and deep space.
“We will go with innovative new technologies and systems to explore more locations across the surface than was ever thought possible,” Bridenstine writes. “This time, when we go to the moon, we will stay. And then we will use what we learn on the moon to take the next giant leap — sending astronauts to Mars.”
What the Moon to Mars mission looks like so far
In December 2017, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, a change in national space policy that provides for innovative and sustainable exploration programs to enable human expansion across the solar system.
The directive reads, in part, “Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”
According to Bridenstine, NASA is ready for the challenge.
A new website NASA created called Moon 2 Mars states that NASA will be partnering with commercial and international partners to more rapidly expand space exploration and that they will be “going (to the moon) quickly and sustainably with a reusable architecture,” using resources of the moon for future exploration.
NASA announced they are building a spacecraft called Orion with the capability of taking up to four astronauts hundreds of thousands of miles into deep space. Orion will dock at the Gateway, an orbital outpost that NASA is planning to build near the moon in the 2020s.
According to Moon2Mars, NASA will launch Orion on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is planned to be the most powerful rocket launcher NASA has ever built, from a modernized spaceport at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The first integrated space mission, called Exploration Mission-1, is projected to take place in 2020 and send an uncrewed Orion thousands of miles beyond the moon.
NASA has planned Exploration Mission-2 for 2022. The second mission will take a crew around the moon for the first time in 50 years.
NASA plans on landing a rover on the moon by 2023 and astronauts on the surface of the moon by 2024. From that point, NASA has projected a future Mars mission for sometime in the 2030s.
This year, NASA plans on using Commercial Lunar Payload Services to send new instruments and technologies to the moon. The first deliveries could take place by the end of 2019.
Research on the moon
NASA plans to conduct more scientific experiments across the surface of the moon to “exploit the resources of our nearest neighbor ahead of a human return.”
According to NASA, future astronauts will stay longer on, explore more of and create a sustainable presence on the moon. Autonomous rovers and robots will move across the surface of the moon and NASA plans on printing, manufacturing and building infrastructure and equipment from materials found on the moon.
The south pole of the moon presents new opportunities for exploration and innovation for NASA. In 2018, NASAconfirmed that craters on both the south and north poles of the moon contain ice deposits.
According to NASA, enough ice is sitting on the surface of the moon to suggest the possibility of water accessibility that would enable expeditions and even living on the moon.
Bridenstine pointed out at the National Space Council meeting that there are an estimated 1 trillion pounds of ice at the lunar poles, which “means life support, air to breathe, water to drink, (and) hydrogen and oxygen, which is rocket propulsion on the surface of the moon.”
Will we be ready to land on the Moon in five years?
While NASA is advancing plans for further space exploration and a future moon landing, there are challenging obstacles and limitations the agency will need to address to get there.
The Space Launch System
One of the biggest challenges is the construction of the SLS. The agency has spent the past decade constructing the multibillion-dollar launcher and its completion has met delay after delay.
A reason for the delay is the cost of the launcher. NASA reported in 2017 that they paid their contractor $7.6 million to complete construction on a compressed timetable. Additional needed modifications raised that price by $20.3 million. Then they increased some more.
“NASA did not establish adequate funding reserves to cover these changes and therefore had to secure $35.5 million in additional funding over the planned budget,” NASA reported. “Finally, because NASA did not adequately consider alternative locations before selecting Marshall as the site for the test stands, it cannot ensure it made the most cost-effective decision regarding where to build the stands.”
The SLS was initially expected to have an inaugural launch in 2018, then in 2019 and then in 2020, according to Wired. Bridenstine announced on March 14 that the launch, which will include transport of an uncrewed Orion capsule, will be pushed further back to sometime in 2021.
The initial goal to have an astronaut on the moon by 2028 existed due to delays surrounding construction of the SLS, according to Wired. The accelerated 2024 goal puts further pressure on NASA to complete construction by their deadline.
The NASA team will furthermore need to construct the Gateway docking system planned for the early 2020s.
Two weeks ago, Bridenstine said NASA was considering the use of private rockets instead of SLS to launch the Orion capsule, but he expressed confidence Tuesday that the SLS would be ready for the job.
The south pole of the moon
The projected location of the lunar landing (the south pole of the moon) creates its own unique challenges.
The south pole has a more rugged terrain than the equatorial area of the moon where Apollo 11 astronauts landed in 1969, which will need to be taken into account for landings and rovers.
Perhaps the most challenging element of the south pole is that its orientation creates communication problems between astronauts on the moon and support teams back home.
In January, a Chinese probe called the Chang'e 4 landed in the South Pole-Aitken basin on the moon, The Guardian reported. The Chinese team was unable to communicate directly with the spacecraft, so signals to and from the rover had to be relayed via satellite, according to The Guardian. NASA will face similar obstacles.
Another challenge with the mission is how little is known about lunar ice extraction and how to convert lunar ice into rocket fuel on the moon.
According to Wired, Jack Burns, an astrophysicist who served on NASA’s presidential transition team, said on Tuesday, “Before we put boots on the ground at the poles, we urgently need a robotic water ice prospecting mission to the lunar poles.
“We don’t understand what the water ice looks like below the surface,” Burns added. “Is it mixed finely with the lunar regolith or is it blocks of ice? Both are theoretically possible, but it would require very different techniques to extract.”
Timeline and incentives
Pence warned NASA that if they can’t put astronauts on the moon by 2024, "we need to change the organization, not the mission."
Some former NASA officials and researchers, however, believe the goal will be very difficult to reach.9 comments on this story
Former NASA official Scott Hubbard told The Associated Press that without national security incentives to get Americans back to the moon, such as those that existed during Apollo and the Cold War, it would be very difficult to get there in time.
Hubbard remarked that similar efforts by both Bush administrations to explore space “didn't go anywhere and collapsed of their own significant financial weight."
Only time will tell if the next giant leap for mankind will be possible and if we will see another American bootprint on the surface of the moon come 2024.