NASA chief vows to make ambitious, expensive plan to return to the moon "a reality"

NASA reveals Artemis moon program

NASA's mission, pocked by fits and starts for decades, now has a new name and a new urgency. The Artemis program, named after the Greek goddess of the moon, intends to land astronauts on the South Pole of the moon by 2024 – four years sooner than originally planned. It's an ambitious, expensive plan and NASA needs commercial and congressional support to pull it off.

Fifty years ago this July, two Americans left the first footprints in lunar dust. Since then, no other country has matched Apollo's moonwalkers though five have sent probes and robots including Israel and China just this year. 

"It's not by accident that so many countries around the world right now are going to the moon. And not all of 'em are going to the moon just to collect rocks," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told CBS News' Mark Strassmann. "It's a strategic imperative that the United States have a presence there as well."

When Bridenstine became the agency's administrator, a planned moon landing was a decade away, but in a March speech, Vice President Mike Pence lit a fire under NASA and its contractors, saying, "If NASA's not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission."

According to Bridenstine, NASA's problem is that it has created projects over and over again that are so far out, administrations change and those projects get cancelled.

"Billions of dollars wasted of the taxpayer," Bridenstine said. "We're gonna shorten the timescale ... we're gonna make this a reality."
 
That starts by accelerating development of NASA's new mega-rocket, called the space launch system, or SLS. On top would sit NASA's new crew capsule, Orion. Roughly 240,000 miles from Earth, Orion eventually would dock with a planned lunar-orbiting space station called Gateway. But the Artemis program lacks one key component: a lunar lander.
 
"Lunar landers are difficult to build. They take time, they take money. And we don't have that capability," Bridenstine said.
 
Not yet, but private industry wants that contract. Last week, billionaire Jeff Bezos introduced Blue Moon, his space company's design for a lunar lander. Lockheed Martin also has a design. 

But is five years to get to the moon too intense of a schedule?

"If somebody says this isn't safe ... ultimately, they have the authority to throw a red flag and say stop," Bridenstine said. "It is more important for us that our astronauts be safe."

Bridenstine, a former congressman from Oklahoma, thinks he has the votes on Capitol Hill for this new budget hike. Bigger requests are sure to follow. But without that support, the moon looks awfully far away.