NASA's Future Moon Missions Will Help Build 'Railroad' to Mars, Says New Chief

NASA's newly appointed chief Jim Bridenstine made his first major speech in the capacity on Wednesday, outlining his support for the space agency's plans to make a return to the moon and, subsequently, to put humans on Mars.

Speaking at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C., Bridenstine assured the audience that NASA was committed to both goals and that they were complementary.

"If some of you are concerned that our focus in the coming years is the moon, don't be," he said. "The president's vision has emphasized that our Exploration Campaign will establish American leadership in the human exploration of Mars. We are doing both the moon and Mars, in tandem, and the missions are supportive of each other."

"In fact, our return to the surface of the moon will allow us to prove and advance technologies that will feed forward to Mars: precision landing systems, methane engines, orbital habitation, surface habitation, surface mobility, long duration life-support operations, and much more that will enable us to land the first Americans on the Red Planet," he said.

Bridenstine—a former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma who was appointed NASA administrator just three weeks ago after the space agency had gone 15 months without a permanent leader—likened the situation in space today to America in the 1800s when the West was still largely unexplored.

He spoke of how Congress passed an act in 1862, greenlighting the development of a transcontinental railroad that would eventually open up vast new possibilities for exploration and economic expansion. "Forty-nine years after Apollo 11, it's time to build our own railroad," Bridenstine said.

Looking forward, Bridenstine said that if NASA wanted to make a success of its future plans, it should encourage private space companies to invest in initiatives that will move humans beyond low-Earth orbit and take them deeper into space.

In fact, as part of its efforts to return humans to the Moon, NASA has already asked the commercial space industry to help it land scientific payloads on the Earth's only natural satellite. The agency hopes that by working with private companies in this way, they can lower mission costs.

While Bridenstine's latest comments didn't reveal any concrete new mission plans, they did shed light on NASA's focus for the coming years, following the signing of the Space Policy Directive-1 by President Trump in December 2017.

The policy stated: "The NASA Administrator shall, 'Lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.'"

This Exploration Campaign, as NASA refers to it, involves a number of programs that will build toward manned missions in the latter half of next decade. These range from the development of a lunar-orbit space station that will be used as a staging post for moon and deep-space exploration (the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway) to robotic missions, such as the recently launched Mars InSight lander and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover—which is designed to search for signs of life, among other things.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, watches the launch of NASA’s InSight spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket at NASA Headquarters, in Washington, D.C., on May 5. The newly appointed chief made his first major speech on Wednesday, outlining his support for the space agency’s plans to make a return to the Moon and, subsequently, to put humans on Mars. Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via Getty Images

Bridenstine highlighted Mars 2020 as an example of how future missions will help put humans on the red planet. The rover will carry an instrument known as MOXIE, which will conduct tests to see if oxygen can be produced from the red planet's atmosphere, something that will be key for future manned missions.

Meanwhile, he noted how InSight was a perfect illustration of how the space agency will collaborate with various partners to achieve its goals. "This was a government lander, built by American industry with international partners, launched on a commercially procured ULA [United Launch Alliance—a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing] rocket from an air force base," he said. "This is, in fact, evidence that we are building the railroad, tie by tie, stake by stake.