ORLANDO, Fla. — Facing down its 60th anniversary next month, NASA is reaffirming its vision for the next several years of spaceflight.
“It’s time we go back to the moon, friends,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told members of the space industry Monday morning at the annual AIAA Space Forum, held in Orlando.
Bridenstine, an appointee of President Donald Trump who took over as head of NASA in April, reaffirmed Trump’s 2017 policy directive to return astronauts to the moon — but further described what achieving that mission might look like.
During a keynote address highlighting the history of NASA, Bridenstine outlined the agency’s plans to return to the pace of exploration it set in the 1960s, when, 11 years after the agency’s inception, it put men on the moon.
Now, NASA plans to leverage the robust private space industry to create a more sustainable and long-term presence in space.
“We are doing it in a way that’s never been done before,” Bridenstine said. “There is only one country on the planet that is going to build an architecture for sustainability so we can go back and forth to the moon.”
Bridenstine was talking about the Gateway, a spaceport that will orbit the moon and act as a jumping-off point for deep space exploration missions. In conjunction with the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, and the Orion spacecraft under construction at Kennedy Space Center, the Gateway would serve as a lunar space station that would support multiple missions to different areas of the moon as well as to Mars.
Orion is expected to make an uncrewed mission (Exploration Mission-1) to orbit the moon by 2020. Exploration Mission-2 is scheduled to take a crew on a lunar flyby in mid-2022. And the first astronauts could visit the Gateway by 2024, according to NASA.
Reusability will ultimately play a central role in what Bridenstine views is the next era of the program, highlighting a trend that has become the cornerstone of rocket development over the past several years.
By Exploration Mission-4, Bridenstine said, Orion will have reusable components.
“We need every part of the architecture between Earth and the moon to be reusable,” he said.
The moon would then serve as a kind of training ground, where NASA will fine-tune its technology before the next big leap.
“We are going to retire risk, and we are going to take that entire architecture to Mars,” Bridenstine said.
While the mission to bring the United States back to global prominence by establishing dominion — and especially human dominion — in space is central to NASA’s current plans, former NASA administrators cautioned Bridenstine to also focus on NASA’s other areas of exploration, including research on exoplanets and hypersonics.
“NASA is more than human spaceflight,” said former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin during a NASA at 60 panel. “People have different expectations for NASA and you have to make sure there is a balance between the programs.”
Charles Bolden, another former NASA administrator, said he’d like to see less focus on launch vehicles and more focus on orbiters and orbiting platforms to get to the surface of the moon and Mars.
And whether those surfaces will ever serve as colonies for humans is still to be seen, but Bridenstine isn’t ruling out the possibility.
“We are not planning on having a permanent presence of humans on the moon, Bridenstine said, before he paused and added, “Although I’m not opposed to it.”
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