NASA finally announced a timetable on Thursday for its effort to return humans to the moon, delaying a key step: when to launch the first of three heavy-lift rockets and return people back to lunar orbit.
The White House had originally asked NASA to select a contractor that would design and manufacture such a rocket by March 2019. But the new plan, if approved by Congress, will move that date back to 2020 and further delay the moon landing.
The space agency said it would still design the rocket, with three legs to carry astronauts back to the moon and back, but the new date is the time in which the boosters would be designed, tested and ready to fly.
“NASA today moves the timeline forward by more than two years for the heavy-lift rocket program and several other NASA programs,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, announcing the plan in New Orleans, at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
“The vehicle must fly in 2020 to enable the second vehicle to fly in 2025,” he said.
Once the moon landing gets pushed back, it will be another year since NASA astronauts returned to the surface of Earth, after nearly 50 years of space exploration. And in many ways, NASA seems to be falling behind the other space agencies, namely those funded by the European Space Agency and Russia. It also seems to be falling behind SpaceX, a private company that is designing its own deep-space rocket, which is scheduled to begin test flights as early as next year.
On Thursday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet that he believes humans will be living on Mars by 2035.
× Need a little help deciding what to wear? We got that sorted: https://t.co/77uKj8gJcS pic.twitter.com/IiWB0tnyHL — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 29, 2018
The White House has also called for expediting development of commercial rockets and spacecraft. The new timeline for the NASA rockets is part of a series of announcements related to the Return to the Moon program, which also includes plans to establish a lunar gateway in orbit near the moon. The gateway, in which Earth, Mars and the moon would be situated side by side, would provide several Earth-moon proximity tests to measure the health of spacecraft, the capabilities of landing sites, the effects of radiation and the challenges of the unexplored lunar environment.
NASA would build the spacecraft, including a human habitat, the landing site and a moon base.