Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday called for American astronauts to return to the lunar surface within five years, a bold and exceedingly difficult challenge that would push NASA to its limits.
In a fiery speech in Huntsville, Alabama, Pence repeatedly said the space agency needed to act with a renewed sense of urgency to land humans on the moon for the first time since 1972. And he cast the mission as part of a new space race against superpowers such as Russia and China, which landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon earlier this year.
But most of all, Pence said that NASA and its major programs have been stifled by a crippling bureaucracy that has prevented it from moving more boldly in its human exploration endeavors.
“It’s not just competition against our adversaries,” Pence said. “We’re also racing against our worst enemy: complacency.”
Pence did not provide any details on how the agency would achieve landing humans on the moon in the five-year time frame, a monumental goal that NASA had been hoping to achieve by 2028. He provided no details on the cost or how the mission would unfold. He added that he had only learned the details of NASA’s plans five minutes before stepping onstage. NASA did not immediately respond to a request for more details about the plan.
In his speech, which came during the fifth meeting of the National Space Council, Pence took a shot at the rocket NASA is developing, known as the Space Launch System. With Boeing as the prime contractor, the rocket is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Recently, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told a Senate hearing that its first flight was going to be once again delayed and, as a result, the agency would look at sidelining it in favor of commercial rockets.
Companies such as SpaceX, the United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin are all developing new, very capable rockets that, while not as capable as the SLS, would be far less expensive.
Pence doubled down on the idea of bypassing the SLS Tuesday, lamenting how the program has “been plagued by bureaucratic inertia, by what some call the paralysis of analysis.” He said he was saddened to hear that the first flight of the rocket would be pushed to 2021.
“Now that would be 18 years after the SLS program was started and 11 years after the president of the United States directed NASA to return American astronauts to the moon,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s just not good enough.”
He also took aim at NASA’s bureaucracy, saying the agency “must transform itself into a leaner, more accountable and more agile organization. If NASA’s not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission.”
Pence’s speech comes at a time of increased activity and competition in space. The White House has pushed the creation of a Space Force to help the military combat potential adversaries in orbit. Earlier this year, China landed an uncrewed spacecraft on the far side of the moon and plans to return another spacecraft later this year. India and Israel also plan to land spacecraft on the moon this year.
The White House, however, has been looking to make a big splash in space, hoping to send an Orion spacecraft, without crew, in a trip around the moon in the first term. The landing of humans on the moon would happen in a second term, should Trump be reelected.
“If commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years then commercial rockets [it] will be,” he said. “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.”
Bridenstine said that he believed that Boeing and the other contractors, working alongside NASA, could accelerate the schedule so that SLS could be launched in 2020. And he said the agency was dedicated to meeting the White House’s goal.
“Our agency is going to do everything in its power to meet that vision, to meet that deadline,” he said. “We got it loud and clear.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Christian Davenport