The last time astronauts were on the moon was nearly 50 years ago during the Apollo 17 mission, the final manned lunar mission the United States ever sent.
Today, several decades later, Vice President Mike Pence wants NASA to put astronauts back on the moon within five years.
In a speech at the fifth meeting of the National Space Council on March 26 in Alabama, Pence outlined a significant new space policy that will send astronauts on manned lunar missions by 2024.
"[N]ow it's come the time for us to make the next 'giant leap' and return American astronauts to the Moon, establish a permanent base there, and develop the technologies to take American astronauts to Mars and beyond," said Pence.
Can NASA Send Astronauts Back On The Moon?
The Trump administration's ambitious space policy called Space Policy Directive-1 wants to accelerate putting astronauts back on the moon, specifically to the lunar south pole. Pence believes NASA has taken too slow to finish the job.
In the early '70s, it took NASA eight years to land at the moon when they still didn't know how to do it, said Pence. He expressed dissatisfaction when NASA said its goal was to return to the moon by 2028.
"Ladies and gentlemen, that's just not good enough. We're better than that," said Pence.
According to Ars Technica, it has been an open secret that large contractors have been receiving billions of dollars in funding for deep space exploration, which has not materialized in the last 15 years.
One such contractor is Orion for the Space Launch System rocket. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during the council meeting that Orion already has a scheduled Exploration Mission-1 in 2020 and another crewed mission that will put astronauts within the lunar vicinity by 2022.
"We will take action in the days and weeks ahead to accomplish these goals," said Bridenstine. "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."
Bridenstine explained that NASA must speed up work on an advanced upper stage for the SLS rocket, which will be needed for its third or fourth flight.
On the other hand, budget for the project called for deferring funding on this upper stage until it was needed. This means it will be difficult to complete the rocket by 2024 unless funding is resolved.
A New Era Of Space Race
In his speech, Pence enumerated a number of space policies that he believes will "propel human space exploration missions further into the depths of our solar system."
He mentioned the launching of the U.S. Space Force, which will become the sixth branch of the country's armed forces and will be led by Air-Force General John Raymond.
He also mentioned the Lunar Gateway, which is designed as outposts on the moon and the missions to Mars. In March, Canada has signed the deal to become the first international partner for the Lunar Gateway, said Pence.
Pence also did not falter when he mentioned that the country is in a "space race" that is competing against China, an emerging global superpower.
In December, China successfully landed an unmanned mission on the far side of the moon, making it the first country to do so. China has also revealed its plans to seize lunar strategic high ground and gain power as "the world's preeminent spacefaring nation."
Furthermore, Pence mentioned that Russia has been charging the United States with more than $80 million a seat every time an American astronaut flies to the International Space Station.
All these and it feels like the intense space race in the '60s is emerging again. The future of space exploration, however, is at a standstill.
Returning to the moon is expensive and there are questions as to what will be de-funded to get American astronauts back on the moon. Pence said Congress will be allocating $500 million alone for the crewed mission aboard the Lunar Gateway. Meanwhile, estimates say that the 2024 mission could cost $120 billion.
This is amid the fact that the Trump administration's proposed NASA budget includes cuts to programs such as the Office of STEM Engagement and the WFIRST telescope.
Still, when things get difficult, Pence said they could change the organization, but not the mission.
"To be clear, we're not committed to any one contractor," said Pence. "If our current contractors can't meet this objective, then we'll find ones that will."