Vice President Mike Pence today called for American astronauts to return to the moon in five years, laying down a challenge comparable to the 1960s Space Race.
"We're in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher," Pence declared during a meeting of the National Space Council at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
For an example, he pointed to China's Chang'e-4 mission, which put a lander and a rover on the moon's far side in January. He also noted that Russia has been charging NASA as much as $80 million per seat for rides to the International Space Station in the wake of the space shuttle fleet's retirement in 2011.
"But it's not just competition against our adversaries," Pence said. "We're also racing against our worst enemy: complacency."
Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, acknowledged that the cost of an accelerated push back to the moon would be great, but said that "the costs of inaction are greater." NASA would be given authority to meet the five-year goal "by any means necessary," Pence promised.
He said development of the space agency's heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket would be accelerated. In follow-up comments, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Boeing and other SLS contractors had worked out a plan to keep the rocket's first round-the-moon test launch, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, on track for 2020.
If the pace of SLS development isn't sufficient to get astronauts to the moon by 2024, then the program's focus would shift to commercial rockets, Pence said. Although he named no names, the obvious alternate candidate would be SpaceX and its Starship / Super Heavy launch system, which is in the earliest phase of ground testing.
BIG NEWS: President Trump and @VP Pence have directed @NASA to return astronauts to the Moon in the next 5 years.— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) March 26, 2019
Challenge accepted. Now let's get to work.https://t.co/MjcDSG6NLc pic.twitter.com/QqYofbKzOe