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NASA 'On Track' to Return Astronauts to the Moon by 2024, VP Pence Says

NASA's Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts to the moon, is on track, Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday (Aug. 20), just about five months after instructing NASA to land humans on the moon by 2024.

Pence spoke during the National Space Council (NSC) convened for the sixth time yesterday at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. At the meeting, Pence and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine discussed the future of human spaceflight, specifically with regard to Artemis. 

"The Artemis mission has already begun. We're well on our way to making NASA's moon-to-Mars mission a reality," Pence said in his opening remarks as chair of the council. "Our moon-to-Mars mission is on track, and America is leading in human space exploration again," he added later in the meeting.

Related: US Is in a New Space Race with China and Russia, VP Pence Says 

Artemis aims to land the first woman on the moon by 2024. The program includes earlier initiatives mandated by President Donald Trump's Space Policy Directive 1, which focused NASA on lunar missions. The agency is currently developing the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a station that would orbit the moon, and the Space Launch System (SLS), a giant new rocket that would carry the Gateway to lunar orbit.

Artemis is a NASA program, but the agency is seeking commercial partners. Since the program's formal announcement, NASA has put out calls for proposals, seeking companies to build spacecraft that could ferry supplies to the Gateway and the lunar surface

NASA plans to both land humans on the moon and develop longer-term habitation on the rocky satellite. "Once we return to the moon, we're going to develop the technologies to live and thrive in a multi-month expedition at its south pole," Pence said at the meeting. 

"Using what we learn on the moon will bring us closer to the day, as the president said, that American astronauts will plant the Stars and Stripes on the surface of Mars," he added, referencing previous statements Trump made about returning humans to the moon.

This lunar outpost is not the final goal for Artemis or the final step in lunar habitation, however. NASA also hopes that a successful Gateway and the hopeful success of the Artemis program will support crewed missions to Mars. At the meeting, Bridenstine referred to the Gateway as "evolvable," suggesting that the station could turn the moon into a "jumping-off point" to get to Mars. 

"It is an opportunity for us to take humans deeper into space than we've ever gone before in human history, and in fact, that is our ship to get to Mars," Bridenstine said. 

Despite touting that NASA was "on track" with Artemis, Pence also said that the agency needs to be "leaner" and more efficient. "We'll continue to transform NASA into a leaner, more accountable and more agile organization," he said in his opening remarks.

While Pence didn't delve into the specifics of how NASA would "transform," he did say that NASA is "going to make it easier than ever to recruit and retain the world’s brightest scientists, engineers and managers, and we’re going to hit our goals and make new American history in space."

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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