The United States plans to land astronauts on the moon within the next five years, Vice President Mike Pence announced today (March 26).
The nation had been shooting for a 2028 lunar touchdown, but "that's just not good enough," Pence said during the fifth meeting of the National Space Council (NSC), which he chairs. "We're better than that."
So, it is now the official policy of the United States to return astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024, the vice president stressed, invoking a 21st-century space race with China and Russia.
"Urgency must be our watchword," Pence said at the NSC meeting, which was held at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "The United States must remain first in space in this century as in the last, not just to propel our economy and secure our nation but, above all, because the rules and values of space, like every great frontier, will be written by those who have the courage to get there first and the commitment to stay."
And the United States is indeed committed to stay, Pence added. The nation's next giant leap in space, he said, involves establishing a permanent base on the lunar surface "and developing the technologies to take American astronauts to Mars and beyond."
That base will likely be built near the moon's south pole, which harbors abundant water ice on the floors of permanently shadowed craters. The NSC, which helps steer and streamline the nation's space policy, will recommend today that NASA's next crewed surface mission target that region, Pence said.
The vice president acknowledged the aggressiveness of the 2024 timeline but stressed that it is achievable, citing the successful Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, just 12 years after the dawn of the space age.
Success this time around will require an "all-hands-on-deck approach," which may include the use of commercial rockets if NASA's in-development Space Launch System megarocket isn't ready to go, Pence said. And, he added, "NASA must transform itself into a leaner, more accountable and more agile agency."
No person has set foot on the moon since NASA's Apollo 17 mission returned home in December 1972.
President Donald Trump made a crewed lunar return the official policy of the United States in December 2017 with the signing of Space Policy Directive 1, which also directs NASA to use the moon as a stepping-stone for eventual human missions to Mars and other deep-space destinations.
NASA's current plans to make all this happen include the construction of a small moon-orbiting space station called the Gateway, which will serve as a jumping-off point for robotic and crewed sorties to the lunar surface. Gateway assembly is scheduled to begin in 2022.
The Gateway "enables us to get to more parts of the moon than ever before," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during today's NSC meeting.
Another key piece of NASA's deep-space vision is the Orion crew capsule, which is also in development. Orion has one spaceflight under its belt — a successful uncrewed test mission to Earth orbit in December 2014, which launched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.
- NASA Plans to Build a Moon-Orbiting Space Station: Here's What You Should Know
- In Photos: President Trump Aims for the Moon with Space Policy Directive 1
- Presidential Visions for Space Exploration: From Ike to Trump
Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.