Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech yesterday in which he outlined NASA’s new goal. The agency will no longer focus on going to Mars – it is now planning a return to the Moon first.
The announcement is the latest about-turn for the agency, which must be pretty sick of being given a new goal every 4 years. Under Bush, it was the Moon. Under Obama, Mars. Now we’re back to the Moon again. Come on people.
Absent from Pence’s speech – given at the National Space Council’s launch controversially re-started by Trump – were any actual specifics. There was no timeline, no showing of new hardware, no studies. Instead, we got a bunch of wishy-washy statements that might placate the public, but in reality, mean absolutely nothing.
“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 at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Virginia, equivalent to me telling you I’m developing my own nuclear fusion reactor.
“We won the race to the Moon a half a century ago, and now we will win the 21st century in space.”
As mentioned, we have no idea when this would actually happen. It would be the first return to the Moon since Apollo 17 left in 1972. What the plan actually is though, who knows.
For the last decade, NASA has been working on a huge new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS), and a new spacecraft called Orion. The latter has completed one unmanned launch, while the former will not fly for the first time until 2019.
These were developed as part of Obama’s broader goal to get astronauts to Mars, a worthy idea if one that was not fully supported. This so-called Journey to Mars, championed by former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, would have seen astronauts orbit the Red Planet in the 2030s and, at some point, land.
Giving up on Mars would be "disastrous," Bolden told IFLScience in an interview 2 years ago. Sorry Charlie.
There were quite a lot of things missing from that Journey to Mars plan, though. NASA hadn’t yet started development on the whole spacecraft that will actually go to Mars, nor any sort of habitat for the future. It has been gathering ideas for building a Mars outpost, though.
Maybe that was for the best because the goalposts have changed yet again. Truth be told, it probably doesn’t change too much for now. The SLS and Orion will still be used for missions to the Moon, so their development will still continue. NASA is also looking into building a lunar space station, possibly with help from Russia.
But this commitment to put “boots on the Moon” is new. It means the Trump administration is telling NASA to actively focus on developing systems to land on the Moon. That’s not cheap, and it will surely delay any attempts to go to Mars.
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Pence spouted the commonly misheld view that the US is not leading in space, and “must act” to its former glory. To say that is untrue is an understatement. NASA leads in space, no doubt.
“America will lead in space again,” said Pence, perhaps forgetting that no country can match NASA for planetary science. It leads on the International Space Station (ISS), has no competitor for astronomy, and will start launching humans again next year (thanks to Obama, mind), to name but a few things.
Anyway, the crux of it all is that NASA’s new goal is to go back to the Moon. Until Trump is no longer President, then it'll probably go somewhere else. Then somewhere else. Until Elon Musk colonizes Mars or something.
Oh to be a NASA employee.