VP Mike Pence revs up NASA schedule for putting astronauts on station in lunar orbit


VP Mike Pence at Johnson Space CenterVP Mike Pence at Johnson Space Center
Vice President Mike Pence is flanked by portraits of NASA’s Orion space capsule and a space station in lunar orbit as he speaks at Johnson Space Center in Texas. (NASA via YouTube)

During a pep talk to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, Vice President Mike Pence today highlighted what he saw as the mistakes of past space policy and touted an ambitious plan to put American astronauts on a new space station in lunar orbit by the end of 2024.

Pence said the Trump administration was working with Congress on a $500 million initiative to move NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway “from proposal to production.” The first element of the outpost, known as the Power and Propulsion Element, is due for launch in 2022.

NASA’s first crewed launch of its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket is currently scheduled for 2023. That mission would send astronauts around the moon and back in an Orion deep-space capsule. Pence suggested that a follow-up SLS launch would send astronauts to dock with the Gateway sometime during the following year.

“Our administration is working tirelessly to put an American crew aboard the Lunar Orbital Platform before the end of 2024. … It’s not a question of if. It’s just a question of when,” Pence told the audience at Johnson Space Center.

Meeting a 2024 timetable would require getting other components of the Gateway attached to the Power and Propulsion Element — and clearing a more powerful variant of the SLS, known as Block 1B, for crewed flight. That schedule is theoretically doable, but challenging for an Orion-SLS development program that has already met with delays.

Putting a crew aboard the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway in 2024 would mesh with the Trump administration’s drive to phase out direct federal funding for the International Space Station by 2025.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters in Houston that the space agency wanted to make sure a gap in space station utilization “doesn’t materialize,” as it did in the case of the space shuttle program.

Pence, who heads the White House’s National Space Council, reiterated the administration’s commitment to the space station transition and other aspects of space policy during today’s talk. Among the highlights:

  • The vice president said the Obama administration’s decision to cancel NASA’s Constellation back-to-the-moon program in 2010 was a mistake. Pence claimed that the program “would have put Americans back on the moon by 2020.” However, an independent panel determined at the time that the program could not have met that schedule and was unsustainable due to budget shortfalls. Pence said the current administration strongly supports a “permanent presence around and on the moon.”
  • Pence touted an increase in NASA’s budget to $20.7 billion for the current fiscal year, even though the White House had initially requested $1.6 billion less. It was Congress that pressed for more money, over resistance from the Trump administration.
  • In response to concerns about military space capabilities being developed by China and Russia, the Pentagon is “moving forward” with steps to increase America’s space security, Pence said. “The United States Department of Space Force will be a reality by the year 2020,” the vice president vowed. However, the idea of creating a separate military branch is reportedly encountering opposition in the Senate, which along with the House must sign off the plan.

In addition to his NASA visit, Pence spent time in Houston campaigning for U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who attended the Johnson Space Center gathering. Also in attendance were the nine NASA astronauts selected to fly on next year’s first commercial crew missions to the International Space Station.

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