After returning the priorities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration back to aeronautics and space, the Trump Administration is targeting 2024 as the year that the U.S. will launch its next mission to the moon.

Vice President Mike Pence discussed the goal during a recent meeting of the National Space Council.

“It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Mr. Pence said at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. On the stage nearby was a model of an Apollo landing module that first transported American astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago.

…NASA’s current schedule sets 2023 for the first flight of Orion with astronauts aboard. A moon landing would not occur until 2028, almost a decade from now.

At present, the space agency plans to first build a small outpost orbiting the moon, called Gateway. Astronauts would travel between the outpost and the lunar surface.

“Ladies and gentleman, that is just not good enough,” Mr. Pence said of the timeline, laid out in budget documents weeks ago. “We are better than that.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine followed up with a discussion on how to expedite this, with a public-private partnership with SpaceX and its Falcon Heavy rocket.

…Bridenstine then laid out one scenario that has huge implications, not for a 2020 launch, but one later on. Until now, it was thought that only NASA’s Space Launch System could directly inject the Orion spacecraft into a lunar orbit, which made it the preferred option for getting astronauts to the Moon for any potential landing by 2024. However, Bridenstine said there was another option: a Falcon Heavy rocket with an Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage built by United Launch Alliance. “Talk about strange bedfellows,” he mused about the two rocket rivals.

“It would require time [and] cost, and there is risk involved,” Bridenstine said. “But guess what—if we’re going to land boots on the Moon in 2024, we have time, and we have the ability to accept some risk and make some modifications. All of that is on the table. There is nothing sacred here that is off the table. And that is a potential capability that could help us land boots on the Moon in 2024.”

With this comment, Bridenstine broke a political taboo. For the first time, really, a senior NASA official had opened the door to NASA flying its first crewed missions to the Moon on a Falcon Heavy rocket built by SpaceX. An official with the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Another space project may be the beneficiary of this new impetus to return. William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA, indicates that the “Gateway Project” that establishes a lunar orbital outpost for Mars missions could provide extra incentive to speed up the lunar launch.

The small, periodically visited outpost near the moon was originally conceived to test technologies needed for a trip to Mars or asteroids. But NASA’s partners, mainly Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, would only play along if it served as way station to the moon as well.

Rebranded simply “Gateway,” the agency also began drafting a partially reusable lunar lander that could be parked at the outpost between sorties to the lunar surface. Other companies, like Lockheed Martin, have designed reusable lunar spacecraft designed to dock with the Gateway.

Gateway proponents assert that it would be more efficient and convenient to assemble the components of the lunar expedition at a hub in the orbit around the moon. Once assembled, the lunar landings could proceed with more destination options.

Do you think that if a movie is ever made of our return, it will feature an American flag?


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