NASA will start designing a manned flight to return the US to the Moon by around 2022 under plans announced by President Trump on Thursday night.
The new US president’s formal unveiling of his plan to “journey back to the Moon and beyond” came hours after the president announced the firing of FBI director James Comey, a move that shocked Washington and brought down the careers of several powerful Republicans.
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Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, said: “Our NASA flight directors are already working on how best to execute a human return to the Moon, as well as the preliminary engineering work needed to prepare for eventual missions to Mars.”
After announcing his new NASA programme, Trump signed an executive order demanding the Agency head, former marine department general Jim Bridenstine, examine options for sending astronauts back to the Moon.
During his presidential campaign, Trump promised he would make the Moon the “first destination of our space program”. He also vowed he would repopulate the planet, saying he wanted the US to use the Moon to test new technologies and then Mars. The president also requested the Department of Defense to provide a report on developing a system to transport the nation’s astronauts to and from Mars.
Donald Trump’s executive order directs the Department of Defense and NASA to work together to develop a system to transport the nation’s astronauts to and from Mars. Photograph: The White House/Getty Images
During his inaugural address, Trump also repeated a long-held White House view that the Moon is the primary destination for human exploration. In the weeks following his inauguration, he hosted several high-profile space experts, including the architect of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, Buzz Aldrin, at the White House.
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In a blogpost for Trump’s presidential commission on space exploration, Bridenstine said the first step would be to “refreshen our country’s goal and mission”.
“I plan to move full speed ahead with NASA,” Bridenstine said. “I’m confident in what we can accomplish, and we will continue to make Mars our national goal. I look forward to meeting the Commander-in-Chief in the months ahead and reaching for a future space.”
At the end of Trump’s official remarks, the president praised former US astronaut Gus Grissom, an original Apollo astronaut who died on 27 July 1967. The first full-fledged mission by US astronauts to the Moon launched from Cape Kennedy on 11 July 1969, joining the Apollo 11 mission on 10 July as part of the “first walk on the Moon”.
Trump is likely to face stiff opposition to such a plan. Nasa scientists opposed the president’s controversial withdrawal from the International Space Station in October last year. The space station crew has said the move “will put more pressure on our future”.
The group urged the president to reconsider the move, calling it “deeply troubling”. Despite the science community’s warnings, Nasa said it was committed to the ISS until the United States has two astronauts living and working aboard the ISS by 2028.
The space agency’s primary mission now is to collect vital data on an expanding asteroid belt, as well as use the $100bn James Webb space telescope.
In a further announcement, Nasa said it would kick off a study of “rotary ion propulsion”, a system used in Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket.