Bridenstime H2M 2018
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told attendees of a Mars exploration conference May 9 that sending humans to Mars remained a long-term goal for NASA even as it returns to the moon. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — A day after telling one audience that the U.S. was returning to the moon, new NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine reassured another that Mars remained a goal for the agency as well.

Speaking May 9 at the Humans to Mars Summit here, Bridenstine said that NASA’s implementation of national space exploration policy signed by President Trump in December, calling for a human return to the moon, didn’t mean NASA was no longer pursuing eventual human missions to Mars.

“If some of you are concerned that our focus in the coming years is the moon, don’t be,” he said. “The president’s vision has emphasized that our Exploration Campaign will establish American leadership in the human exploration of Mars. We are doing both the moon and Mars, in tandem, and the missions are supportive of each other.”

The Exploration Campaign is the name NASA gave earlier this year to a series of programs that support human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. They range from the development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, formerly the Deep Space Gateway, in cislunar space to a series of lander missions of increasing size and sophistication, leading up to human missions by the late 2020s.

One element of the campaign is the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, where NASA will buy payload space on small commercial lunar landers flying as soon as 2019. Bridenstine spoke at an industry day for the program at NASA Headquarters May 8, where he said the program was evidence that this effort to return to the moon would be different from failed efforts in the past, such as the Space Exploration Initiative announced by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and the Vision for Space Exploration announced by President George W. Bush in 2004.

“To many, this may sound similar to our previous two attempts to get to the moon,” he said of the new space exploration policy. “However, times have changed.”

Those changes, he said, included miniaturization of spacecraft, reduced launch costs, outside investment in space ventures and new approaches to government contracting, which combined “drastically increased our national capabilities” for lunar exploration.

“This will not be ‘Lucy and the football’ again,” he said, referring to the recurring scene in the Peanuts comic strip. “We are going to the moon.”

Bridenstine cited the commercial lunar program in his Humans to Mars Summit speech, but also mentioned other efforts in support of that national space policy, including robotic Mars missions like InSight, launched May 5 to study the planet’s interior, and the Mars 2020 rover under development. He specifically noted one payload on Mars 2020, MOXIE, which will test the ability to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, a test of so-called in situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies needed for future human missions.

That Mars exploration program, he said, requires a “thriving” commercial ecosystem in low Earth orbit that can expand outwards to take on duties currently handled by NASA, but also a “government backbone to explore where an economy doesn’t yet exist.” That backbone, he added, includes both the Space Launch System launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft.

Bridenstine likened those plans to the development of the transcontinental railroad that spanned the American West in the 19th century, decades after the initial expedition by Lewis and Clark. In that analogy, the Apollo 11 lunar landing was the equivalent of Lewis and Clark. “Forty-nine years after Apollo 11, it’s time to build our own railroad.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...