Jack Burns
Jack Burns

Vice President Mike Pence, chair of the National Space Council, on Tuesday called for a landing of American astronauts at the south pole of the moon by 2024.

The pledge by Pence, which he said carried the backing of President Donald Trump, came at the fifth meeting of the National Space Council at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and a Boulder scientist was there to help articulate the case as to what could be done there.

"Now has come the time for us to make the next giant leap and return American astronauts to the moon and establish a permanent base there and develop the technology to take American astronauts to Mars and beyond. That is the next giant leap," said Pence, noting that this summer will mark the 50-year anniversary of Neil Armstrong uttering "one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind" as he became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface.

"Urgency must be our watchword," Pence said in his opening remarks. "Failure to achieve our goal to return an American astronaut to the moon in the next five years is not an option. This will require renewed focus and a relentless will to achieve our mission."


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The nearly three-hour session was streamed live via NASA TV.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed the council following the vice president's opening, saying "I want to thank you for that charge today and I want to say it is right on time. And I want to thank you for that vision and leadership. "

He pledged that NASA "will do everything in its power to meet that charge and to meet that deadline."

NASA's current schedule had not called for a moon landing until 2028.

Bridenstine quickly summarized a series of steps he saw as critical to fulfilling the administration's accelerated agenda, including development of the Space Launch System (a space shuttle-derived heavy lift expendable launch vehicle), a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway orbiting station, and the commercialization of low-Earth orbit.

"We need an early command module focused entirely on getting humans to the surface of the moon," Bridenstine said. "We will be using the Gateway as a reusable command module to get boots on the moon as soon as possible. So you can count on that in the coming years."

How difficult — or easy?

Jack Burns, a University of Colorado professor, appeared on the second of two panels that addressed the council; his group was speaking to the theme "Ready to Explore," and Pence, formerly the governor of Indiana, noted that Burns was a "very distinguished scholar," as his doctorate in astronomy is from the University of Indiana.

"We need to clearly articulate the reasons for going to the moon, so the Congress and the public will embrace this goal," Burns told the council, also emphasizing that adequate funding to NASA will be critical to meeting the ambitious agenda set by the White House.

He also got very specific in his address on the theme of exploration.

"Before we put boots on the ground at the poles, we urgently need a robotic ice prospecting mission to the polar portions" of the moon's surface, where NASA has determined there is water ice below the crust.

Citing the potential to break that down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel, he said, "At a temperature of only 40 above absolute zero, how difficult is it for humans and machines to work under those challenging conditions? How difficult or easy it is it to extract? We need missions in the next two years, to get this going."

Burns, a CU professor of astrophysics and planetary science and also vice president emeritus for academic affairs and research at the university, was asked to expand on the potential for harvesting a fuel source from the moon for trips further into the solar system.

"There's a lot about that we don't understand," he conceded. "We don't understand what the water ice looks like below the surface. Is it mixed finely, in with the regolith, or is it in blocks of ice? ... They would require very different techniques, in order to be able to extracted."

He added: "There is a lot of excitement about the potential, particularly economic potential, but there is much more we need to understand, first. We need to begin quickly, with a robotic mission, to understand the nature of that water ice."

'The next giant leap'

Burns sounded a note of regret that China earlier this year was the first nation to accomplish a landing of a robotic spacecraft on the far side of the moon, its Chang'e 4 mission arriving at the Von Kármán Crater on Jan. 2. But he believes the United States can quickly reassert itself in pioneering lunar exploration.

"If this strategic vision is to succeed, we must change our tolerance for risk — not just the agency; it is also Congress and the American public where failure is (seen as) not a fault, but an opportunity to learn and improve."

Boulder-area space writer Leonard David, following the council session, stated in an email, "I do believe we're in a Space Race, Sputnik-style — and NASA has to get its Space Act together.

"There's great reserved talent within both NASA and the private sector," added David, whose latest book, "Moon Rush — The New Space Race" is to be published in May by National Geographic. "The moon looms and other nations are pressing forward. NASA must push on the space accelerator with a coherent program that's both scientifically valid and challenging for America, that allows the country to press forward to beyond Moon destinations — specifically the red dunes of Mars."

In concluding Tuesday's meeting, Pence — who vowed the first female astronaut to the walk on the moon will be an American, concluded Tuesday's session by challenging NASA and the Marshall Space Flight Center to "step up" and "redouble" efforts to see that Trump's mandate is met.

And in returning to the theme of the 50-year observance of the first manned lunar landing, Pence said, "We will celebrate in many ways over the course of this year the 'one giant leap for mankind' that happened 50 years ago.

"But as I said earlier, it's time for the next giant leap. That next giant leap is to return American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, by any means necessary."

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, brennanc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/c