"Apollo on steroids": NASA's mission to get the first woman and next man to the moon by 2024
Fifty years after the Apollo 11 launch, NASA is setting its sights on a trip back to the moon. The goal is to return to the lunar surface by 2024, in a mission described as "Apollo on steroids" – but some critics argue that's unrealistic amid budget concerns and already-missed deadlines.
Orion is NASA's first design of a deep space crew capsule since the Apollo era. It looks similar to Apollo's capsule from the outside, but it's 50% bigger and can hold four astronauts.
"When we went last time, the goal was land a person on the moon and return them safely to Earth. And we did that," said Mark Kirasich, who oversees NASA's Orion program. "This time, it's a little bit different. It's about a sustainable, long-term, human space exploration program."
Orion would launch on top of a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket designed to be more powerful than the Apollo-era Saturn V. It would then fly to a mini-space station orbiting the moon called Gateway, where the crew would dock before taking a lunar lander down to the moon's surface.
A handful of companies are now proposing designs for Gateway, including Northrop Grumman. With Grumman's design, up to four astronauts could live and work for up to two months.
"It's a place where they can cook their food, where they can gather and socialize, but really, do their work," said Frank DeMauro, who oversees the company's space systems.
But it's not that simple. Orion and the SLS rocket are years behind schedule and billions over budget. Fed up, the Trump administration ordered NASA to put Americans back on the moon by 2024 this March.
"If NASA is not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission," said Vice President Mike Pence at the time.
Last week, NASA did just that, and ousted the two top managers of the program responsible for NASA's lunar efforts.
"It was entirely my decision," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. "But at the end of the day, we need to be very clear that NASA is committed to cost and schedule."
Bridenstine says it could take an additional $20 billion over 5 years to meet the new deadline, and that his next step is to get support from Congress.
"If the Congress follows what we have put forward, we will have the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024," he said.
That congressional budget approval remains a big if -- but without it, NASA's new moon mission has no chance. The organization's administrator will testify before the Senate Wednesday.
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