NASA Aims To Send Humans To Moon By Late 2020s

NASA, which recently was told by the Trump administration to return humans to the Moon’s surface, expects to achieve that goal by the “latter part” of the 2020s, acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said Feb. 20.

NASA intends to provide an update on its Moon exploration efforts at the second meeting of the National Space Council, scheduled for Feb. 21 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Lightfoot said at a Space Transportation Association breakfast on Capitol Hill. 

Robert Lightfoot, NASA's acting administrator (Photo by NASA)

Robert Lightfoot, NASA's acting administrator (Photo by NASA)

At the council’s first meeting in October, its chairman, Vice President Mike Pence, announced that the administration would send astronauts to the Moon to lay groundwork for manned missions to Mars and other deep-space destinations (Defense Daily, Oct. 5, 2017). In December, President Donald Trump signed a directive formalizing those plans (Defense Daily, Dec. 11, 2017).

While NASA has been developing the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and the Orion crew capsule to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), the Obama administration had de-emphasized the Moon in favor of sending humans to an asteroid and Mars.

NASA plans to conduct the first SLS flight with an uncrewed Orion by mid-2020. The first crewed flight is slated for 2023 and will go around the Moon.

Boeing [BA] is developing the SLS core stage and Orbital ATK [OA] makes solid rocket boosters for SLS. Lockheed Martin [LMT] is Orion’s prime contractor.

To further support lunar exploration, NASA also intends to develop a series of robotic and manned Moon landers and a technology-maturing, Moon-orbiting structure called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway.

The last manned mission to the Moon was Apollo 17 in 1972.

Lightfoot defended his agency’s proposal to end U.S. government funding for the International Space Station in 2025, saying the time is ripe to stimulate commercial development in LEO.

“That doesn’t mean we de-orbit it,” he said. “That just means that we’re going to end the funding.”

NASA’s $19.9-billion fiscal year 2019 budget request, released Feb. 12, includes $150 million to promote industry activity in LEO. Commercial efforts could include parts of the station.

Lightfoot said he expects the station proposal to generate robust discussions with lawmakers, some of whom already have expressed opposition to ending U.S. government support. He also said he has assured the station’s foreign partners that “we’re going to have plenty of conversations with them,” including at the 2nd International Space Exploration Forum in Tokyo next week.

Lightfoot defended NASA's plans to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), citing the space-based observatory’s high cost of $3.4 billion to $3.8 billion and the need to spend those funds elsewhere.

“That was just a trade that was made,” he said.

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