Vice President Pence has called for NASA to conduct a crewed mission to the surface of the moon within five years, according to the Washington Post. It would be the first time that astronauts have walked on the moon since 1972. Pence’s speech framed the effort in terms of a renewed space race with countries like Russia and China, which recently became the first nation to land a craft on the far side of the moon.
NASA had been planning to aim for a new moon landing by 2028, and Pence’s timeline would require the kind of effort and sense of urgency unprecedented at NASA since the Cold War era.
“It’s not just competition against our adversaries. We’re also racing against our worst enemy: complacency,” Pence said in his speech.
Pence noted that he had only been informed of NASA’s plans moments before making his speech, and provided no details on how the agency would proceed, or on the costs associated with such an ambitious goal.
Pence was speaking at the fifth meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, Alabama, on Tuesday.
NASA’s effort to work with Boeing to develop a new rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS), has faced repeated delays. Most recently, another delay was announced by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a Senate hearing, with an initial flight now postponed until 2021. NASA is now considering abandoning that project in favor of commercial rockets from private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, with more limited capabilities but much lower price tags.
Pence voiced support for such a move on Tuesday, saying the SLS effort “been plagued by bureaucratic inertia, by what some call the paralysis of analysis.”
“Now that would be 18 years after the SLS program was started and 11 years after the president of the United States directed NASA to return American astronauts to the moon. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s just not good enough,” Pence said, adding that NASA “must transform itself into a leaner, more accountable and more agile organization. If NASA’s not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission.”
Under Trump, the White House has found a renewed focus on space, aiming to send an unmanned craft to orbit the moon before the next presidential term. The administration is also aiming to create a military Space Force.
Many scientists involved in space travel expressed support for a renewed sense of urgency, but also emphasized the need for resources to support those efforts.
According to former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan:
“It was a sense of urgency that enabled the Apollo missions to successfully land on the Moon the first time. This same urgency is what it will take to accomplish a successful mission to the Moon in the future — and this call for a specific landing date has that sense of purpose and urgency.”