Growing up, the space race of the ’60s enthralled me. My grandfather instilled a love of space exploration in me, mainly because he was friends with the late Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin. I had the pleasure of meeting him, though I was too young to remember it, but the photo he autographed for me hangs proudly in my hallway at home.
Even though I maintained an interest in the Space Shuttle program, it didn’t grip me like the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs did. I’ve long been disappointed that we haven’t traveled outside of Earth’s orbit since I was a month old. The thrill and excitement of going to the moon has eluded at least two generations, but that drought will soon come to an end.
Vice President Mike Pence announced on Tuesday that the United States has set a goal of returning astronauts to the moon by the year 2024 — that’s right, just five years away! Pence spoke at the meeting of the National Space Council at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where he outlined a plan to put American men and women on the moon in less time than it took the United States in the ’60s.
Referring to President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-1 (SPD-1), which he signed in 2017, the vice president spoke of how the original goal of returning to the moon isn’t good enough:
The truth is, despite the dedication of the men and women who are designing and building and testing the SLS, you all know the program has been plagued by bureaucratic inertia, by what some call the “paralysis of analysis.” The nation actually learned, with great disappointment, in recent weeks, that the date for its first flight for the SLS has been pushed back yet again, to 2021.
You know, after years of cost overruns and slipped deadlines, we’re actually being told that the earliest we can get back to the moon is 2028. 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. We’re better than that. It took us eight years to get to the Moon the first time, 50 years ago, when we had never done it before, and it shouldn’t take us 11 years to get back.
Pence stated that such an aggressive goal will take an “all hands on deck” approach and will necessitate a partnership between public and private space enterprises. He also noted that getting back to the moon is a critical objective because we’re not the only ones trying to step up the game of space exploration:
We have the technology to return to the Moon and renew American leadership in human space exploration. What we need now is urgency.
Now, make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.
Last December, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the Moon and revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation.
And for more than seven years, without a viable human space launch program of our own, Russia has been charging the United States more than $80 million a seat every time an American astronaut travels to the International Space Station.
But it’s not just competition against our adversaries; we’re also racing against our worst enemy: complacency.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine echoed Pence’s statement and remarked that the agency will be ready to meet the objectives:
It is the right time for this challenge, and I assured the Vice President that we, the people of NASA, are up to the challenge.
We will take action in the days and weeks ahead to accomplish these goals. We have laid out a clear plan for NASA’s exploration campaign that cuts across three strategic areas: low-Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars and deeper into space.
I have already directed a new alignment within NASA to ensure we effectively support this effort, which includes establishing a new mission directorate to focus on the formulation and execution of exploration development activities.
The moon isn’t the end goal. Although the moon provides plenty of opportunities to explore and study, it will also serve as a gateway to our missions to Mars. The Moon to Mars program will include building an outpost on the moon that will help us get to Mars by the 2030s.
Pence announced that our neighbors in Canada have agreed to help us with this effort.
This news excites and awakens the little kid inside of me. I love the idea that, before too long, Americans will once again walk on the moon and lead the way in exploring space. I can’t wait to see my niece — who recently decided that she wants to be an astronaut — take her first steps on the moon or maybe even lead the way to Mars.
I just hope and pray that we won’t let this dream slip away.