At a meeting of the National Space Council on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024, moving up the agency's timeline for a return to the lunar surface.
"What we need now is urgency," Pence said during a speech to a crowd at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years."
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, appointed by President Donald Trump, later accepted the challenge, calling it "right on time."
"NASA is going to do everything in its power to meet that deadline," Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine's Twitter account also sent out a link to NASA's Moon to Mars page that still listed 2028 as the target for putting new boots on the lunar surface. The page has since been revised to show the new 2024 target for astronauts on the moon.
Pence's speech echoed overtones of the Cold War tensions that drove NASA to achieve the original Apollo 11 moon landing on schedule 50 years ago this July. Pence said we're in the midst of another space race, citing China's recent landing on the far side of the moon and saying that it "revealed their ambition to seize the strategic lunar high ground."
He also mentioned the reliance on Russian rockets to send American astronauts to orbit over the past decade, something the agency hopes to bring to an end with new spacecraft designed by SpaceX, Boeing and NASA itself.
"The first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil."
Pence was also explicit that meeting the new five-year goal should be accomplished "by any means necessary," including switching to commercial rockets. NASA has planned to send astronauts beyond orbit using its new Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, but SLS has been plagued by delays.
Earlier this month, Bridenstine testified before a congressional committee that NASA may need to perform the first uncrewed launch of Orion in 2020 using a commercial rocket like a SpaceX Falcon Heavy instead. However, in a statement released later Tuesday, Bridenstine said that "while some of these alternative vehicles could work, none was capable of achieving our goals to orbit around the moon for Exploration Mission-1 within our timeline and on budget. The results of this two-week study reaffirmed our commitment to the SLS. More details will be released in the future."
Despite the challenges, Bridenstine said NASA will work to accomplish the goal of landing astronauts near the moon's south pole by 2024.
Sticking to schedules hasn't always been NASA's strong suit, though. Well, at least not since the last time we set foot on the moon.