WASHINGTON – NASA and the White House used the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing to mark the latest achievement in the development of Orion spacecraft and confirm plans to use it to return people to the moon in 2024.
In a speech at Kennedy Space Center July 20, Vice President Mike Pence, flanked by the Orion spacecraft, was built for Artemis 1 uncrewed mission, saying spacecraft composition was now "complete" and ready for final testing.
"Thanks to the hard work of NASA men and men in NASA and US industry, the Orion Crew motif for the Artemis 1 mission is complete and ready to begin preparing its historic first flight," Pence announced in his speech at the KSC Building where Orion is mounted and tested.
The ending he referred to was the long-awaited integration of the Orion crew module, built by Lockheed Martin, with the European built service module. The combined spacecraft will now undergo testing at KSC before going to NASA's Plum Brook Facility in Ohio in September for thermal vacuum tests. It is planned to return to KSC in early 2020 to start preparations.
In a statement, Lockheed Martin said that the two modules were stacked together earlier this week in a test cell, which once used to prepare Apollo spacecraft. The work is underway to complete the spacecraft integration, such as connecting bolts and umbilical cords between the modules.
The Orion will launch on the space launch first flight on an unscrewed three-week flight around the moon designed to perform extensive spacecraft tests before carrying the astronauts on the Artemis 2 mission, slated for launch in 2022.
Neither NASA nor Pence gave an update when the Artemis 1
But he seemed to suggest at the hearing that a 2020 launch was no longer possible for the mission. "I think 2021 is definitely achievable" for Artemis 1, he said.
In his KSC speech, which primarily honored the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Pence also confirmed NASA's plans to return to the moon. "In the next few years, American astronauts will return to the moon aboard the Orion," he said. "We will spend weeks and months, not days and hours, on the moon surface. This time, we come to the moon to stay."
"I am proud that I am facing the US President, and will return to the moon within the next five years, "said Pence earlier in the century.
That figure came just over 24 hours after President Trump, in a somewhat chaotic media opportunity in the Oval Office, marking the Apollo 11th anniversary, seemed willing to reconsider that goal.
"To get to Mars you have to land on the moon, they say. Any way to go directly without landing on the moon? Is that a possibility?" Trump asked at the event, flanked by Pence, Bridenstine and Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
Bridenstine repeated previous comments that the moon is a "proof ground" for later missions to Mars. "When we go to Mars, we must be there for a long time, so we need to learn to live and work in another world," he said.
However, Collins chimed in that he supported the idea of "Mars directly" and refers directly to Mars without first returning to the moon. Collins, in a number of interviews leading up to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, had made similar statements requiring NASA to skip a lunar return to send astronauts to Mars.
"Frankly, I've been a little disappointed in the last 10 to 15 years. We could achieve so much early," said Aldrin later in the discussion, claiming that the SLS / Orion combination cannot "enter the lunar path with significant Maneuverability. "SLS / Orion missions will instead go to a Gateway into an elliptical, almost straight-line, orbit around the moon, from which NASA plans to set up landing missions.
After Bridenstine defended the agency's current approach, Trump asked him to "also listen to the other side because some people would like it to be different." Bridenstine said he would do it.
Neither in Pence speech nor initial remarks from Bridenstine and others, there was some evidence that "the other side" is actively considering as an alternative to NASA's current plans to return people to the moon. "President Trump and Vice President Pence have given us a bold direction as an agency to return to the moon within five years and move on to Mars," Bridenstine said.
Even absent was the "other side" event political. Among those who spoke or recognized at the event were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and several House members, from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise to Bill Posey, representing the district that includes KSC. Everyone was Republican.
"I am especially grateful today to become a member of some of the leading US leaders in space in Congress," Pence said, acknowledging the Republican members of the Congress in attendance. He also noted the "strong bipartite support" for the agency in the form of $ 21.5 billion in 2019 funding, which he called "the largest NASA budget ever". However, that funding was significantly lower than the agency received under the Apollo program in the 1960s when it was adjusted for inflation.
Democratic members marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in several statements that tended to look back to that achievement rather than discussing the agency's current plans to return people to the moon.
"The United States Discovery and Exploration Company is second to none," said rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Chairman of the House Science Committee. "Just as we once put our view on being the first to land on the moon, let's get the same commitment to face the other challenges facing our nation."
Head of Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Whose district includes NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, also celebrated the 11th anniversary of the Apollo and said that when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, "every border and distinction on the earth disappeared, and we were a humanity together ".
"Today, NASA's men and women," he added, "look beyond the moon, toward Mars, and into our galaxy's outermost stretches."