Pence Calls Moon ‘Stepping Stone’ to Mars

The Trump administration plans to send astronauts to the Moon to lay groundwork for manned missions to Mars and other deep-space destinations, Vice President Mike Pence said Oct. 5.

“We will return American astronauts to the Moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said while chairing the first meeting of the newly revived National Space Council. “The Moon will be a stepping stone, a training ground, a venue to strengthen our commercial and international partnerships as we refocus America’s space program toward human space exploration.”

Artist's illustration of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift launch vehicle concept. Photo: NASA.

Artist's illustration of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift launch vehicle concept. Photo: NASA.

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, the Obama administration had deemphasized the Moon in favor of sending humans to an asteroid in 2025 and Mars in the 2030s.

NASA plans to conduct the first SLS flight with an uncrewed Orion in 2019. The first crewed flight is slated for 2021.

To implement the Trump administration’s new direction, NASA intends to develop a plan for “long-term exploration and utilization” of the Moon, followed by missions to Mars and elsewhere, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement.

“Among new areas,” Lightfoot added, “we will work with industry and the international community on robotic lunar landers that explore the nature of the Moon and its resources, such as water.”

Dennis Muilenburg, president and chief executive officer of Boeing [BA], which is developing the SLS core stage, and Marillyn Hewson, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin [LMT], Orion’s prime contractor, both told the council that stable funding will be required long-term to achieve the Trump administration’s space exploration goals. Years of federal budget turbulence have made it difficult for companies to build their supply chains and make long-term investments.

David Thompson, president and CEO of Orbital ATK [OA], which makes solid rocket boosters for SLS, said that technological advances will allow longer trips to the Moon than NASA’s Apollo program achieved in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“The longest period of time that humans have ever been in the vicinity of the Moon is less than five days,” Thompson told the council. “As we go back, I think we will quickly amass the experience of weeks or months of operations in lunar orbit and on the surface of the Moon.”

Pence said the council will review ways to streamline regulations for commercial space. Gwynn Shotwell, SpaceX president and CEO, said launch providers like hers would benefit from a faster licensing process.

“We are working well with the FAA to get our launches licensed,” Shotwell told the council. “However, I think it requires heroics when you make any changes to those launch licenses.”

The council meeting took place at the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The retired space shuttle orbiter Discovery served as a backdrop.

The administration formally revived the long-dormant council in June. Pence has said the council will help reenergize U.S. space efforts, including human space exploration (Defense Daily, July 6).

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