Pence and Orion at KSC
Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Kennedy Space Center July 20 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, with the Orion spacecraft being built for the Artemis 1 mission in the background. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

WASHINGTON — NASA and the White House used the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing to mark the latest achievement in the development of the Orion spacecraft and reaffirm plans to use it to return humans to the moon by 2024.

In a speech at the Kennedy Space Center July 20, Vice President Mike Pence, flanked by the Orion spacecraft being built for the Artemis 1 uncrewed mission, said that assembly of the spacecraft was now “complete” and ready for final testing.

“Thanks to the hard work of the men of NASA — men and women of NASA — and of American industry, the Orion crew vehicle for the Artemis 1 mission is complete and ready to begin preparations for its historic first flight,” Pence announced in his speech at the KSC building where Orion is assembled and tested.

The completion he referred to was the long-awaited integration of the Orion crew module, built by Lockheed Martin, with the European-built service module. The combined spacecraft will now undergo testing at KSC before going to NASA’s Plum Brook Facility in Ohio in September for thermal vacuum tests. It’s scheduled to return to KSC in early 2020 for launch preparations.

In a statement, Lockheed Martin said the two modules were stacked together earlier in the week in a test cell once used to prepare Apollo spacecraft. Work is underway to complete the integration of the spacecraft, such as connecting bolts and umbilical lines between the modules.

That Orion will launch on the first flight of the Space Launch System on an uncrewed three-week flight around the moon intended to perform extensive testing of the spacecraft before it carries astronauts on the Artemis 2 mission, slated for launch in 2022.

Neither NASA nor Pence provided an update on when that Artemis 1 mission will launch. At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee July 17, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he wanted to bring in new leadership for the agency’s human spaceflight programs, who would then examine the costs and schedules of SLS and Orion, before setting a new date for that mission.

However, he seemed to suggest at the hearing that a 2020 launch was no longer feasible for the mission. “I think 2021 is definitely achievable” for Artemis 1, he said.

In his KSC speech, which primarily honored the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Pence also reaffirmed NASA’s plans to return to the moon. “In the coming years, American astronauts will return to the moon aboard the Orion,” he said. “We will spend weeks and months, not days and hours, on the lunar surface. This time, we’re going to the moon to stay.”

“Standing before you today, I am proud to report, at the direction of the President of the United States of America, America will return to the moon within the next five years,” Pence said earlier in the speech.

That speech came a little more than 24 hours after President Trump, in a somewhat chaotic media opportunity in the Oval Office marking the Apollo 11 anniversary, appeared willing to reconsider that goal.

“To get to Mars, you have to land on the moon, they say. Any way of going directly without landing on the moon? Is that a possibility?” Trump asked at the event, flanked by Pence, Bridenstine, and Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

Bridenstine reiterated past comments that the moon is a “proving ground” for later missions to Mars. “When we go to Mars, we’re going to have to be there for a long period of time, so we need to learn how to live and work on another world,” he said.

Collins, though, chimed in that he supported the idea of “Mars direct,” referring going directly to Mars without first returning to the Moon. Collins had, in a number of interviews leading up to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, made similar statements calling on NASA go skip a lunar return in favor sending astronauts to Mars.

“Frankly, I’ve been a little disappointed in the last 10 to 15 years. We were able to achieve so much early,” Aldrin said later in the discussion, arguing that the SLS/Orion combination is not able to “get into lunar orbit with significant maneuvering capability.” SLS/Orion missions will instead go to a Gateway in an elliptical near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon, from which NASA plans to stage lunar landing missions.

After Bridenstine defended the agency’s current approach, Trump asked him to “also listen to the other side because some people would like to do it a different way.” Bridenstine said he would do so.

Neither in Pence’s speech, nor introductory remarks by Bridenstine and others, was there any evidence of “the other side” being under active consideration as an alternative to NASA’s current plans to return humans to the moon. “President Trump and Vice President Pence have given us a bold direction as an agency to return to the moon within five years and go forward to Mars,” Bridenstine said.

Also absent from the event was the “other side” politically. Among those who spoke or were recognized at the event were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and several House members, from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise to Bill Posey, who represents the district that includes KSC. All were Republicans.

“I’m especially grateful today to be joined today by some of the greatest champions of American leadership in space in the Congress,” Pence said, recognizing those Republican members of Congress in attendance. He did also note the “strong bipartisan support” for the agency in the form of its 2019 appropriation of $21.5 billion, which he called “the largest NASA budget ever.” That funding, though, was significantly below what the agency received during the peak of the Apollo program in the 1960s when adjusted for inflation.

Democratic members did mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in several statements which tended to look back at that accomplishment rather than discuss the agency’s current plans to return humans to the moon.

“The United States’ discovery and exploration enterprise is unmatched,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee. “Just as we once set our sights to be the first to land on the moon, let us bring that same sense of commitment to meeting the other challenges facing our nation.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), whose district includes NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, also commemorated the Apollo 11 anniversary, saying that when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, “every border and difference on Earth disappeared, and we were one humankind together.”

“Today, the men and women of NASA,” he added, “look beyond the moon, toward Mars and into the farthest reaches of our galaxy.”

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...