Five decades after sending humans to the Moon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is gearing up for a long term presence on Earth's satellite that the agency says will eventually enable humans to reach Mars.
"Now, NASA is working to build a sustainable, open architecture that returns humanity to our nearest neighbour," Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of the NASA, said in a statement to a Senate committee. "We are building for the long term, going to the Moon to stay, and moving beyond to Mars," he added.
It is to be noted that the next manned mission to the Moon will require comprehensive leaps in robotic technologies and a full-proof plan for NASA to work with private companies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX or Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to help cut the cost of space travel.
In the meantime, NASA is developing a heavy-lift rocket for a debut flight in late 2020 and is also aiming to return humans to the Moon by 2024 in an accelerated timeline set in March by the Trump administration.
Importantly, no humans have launched from US soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. According to the NASA officials, the exploration of Moon and Mars is intertwined, with the Moon becoming a testbed for Mars and providing an opportunity to demonstrate new technologies that could help build self-sustaining extraterrestrial outposts.
"We are working right now in fact to put together a comprehensive plan on how we would conduct a Mars mission using the technologies that we will be proving at the Moon," Bridenstine told reporters, adding that a mission to the Red Planet could come as soon as 2033.
"It's utilization versus curiosity," said roboticist and research professor at Carnegie Mellon University William Whittaker, comparing the Artemis program, as the new lunar mission has been dubbed, with Apollo.
In 1972, the last manned mission to the Moon took place. "That's 50 years of non-progress; I think we all ought to be a little ashamed that we can't do better than that," said Buzz Aldrin, who joined Neil Armstrong in walking on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
On the other hand, Bridenstine noted that the shifting political priorities were the key reason NASA had not returned to the surface of Earth's natural satellite since then.
"If it wasn't for the political risk, we would be on the Moon right now," said the NASA chief, who is working to convince Republican and Democratic lawmakers to approve additional taxpayer funds for the program.
According to a federal audit, Boeing Co is taking years longer than expected with cost overruns of nearly $2 billion for the development of Space Launch System.
"Cost and schedule matter. So we are working rapidly to put together a team that can assess the cost and schedule of these programs and create a realistic baseline that we can work toward," Bridenstine added.
Bridenstine further demoted two longtime heads of NASA's human exploration division last week in a slew of administrative shakeups amid dwindling congressional support for the lunar initiative.
Charlie Duke, who piloted the lunar-landing module during the last lunar mission, Apollo 16, stated that the leadership in the Apollo missions was bold without being careless. "Don't be so risk averse that you don't fly," he added.
He further said that the decision to put astronauts on top of a massive Saturn V rocket, the launch vehicle used by NASA for the Apollo program, "was a very gutsy call. They went through it carefully and they determined it was OK."