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NASA chief: 'Moon is the proving ground, Mars is the destination'

During a press conference on Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he and President Donald Trump are on the same page in regard to NASA's primary objectives.

By Brooks Hays
NASA chief: 'Moon is the proving ground, Mars is the destination'
At a press conference on Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said his agency is working to return astronauts to the moon by 2024. Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI | License Photo

July 15 (UPI) -- President Donald Trump has implored NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to talk less about the moon and more about Mars. On the week of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, it's a tall task, but Bridenstine is trying.

During a press conference Monday, Bridenstine said he and the president are on the same page regarding NASA's primary objectives.

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"Mars is the goal, the president has been clear, we want to plant an American flag on Mars," the head of NASA said during his opening remarks at Monday's press conference.

"The moon is the proving ground, but Mars is the destination," Bridenstine added later, while fielding questions from reporters.

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Trump may want NASA officials to publicly emphasize the goal of putting an astronaut on the moon, but Space Policy Directive 1, which the president signed shortly after taking office, calls on NASA to first return to the moon.

"The president said to go to the moon sustainably, in other words, to stay," Bridenstine repeated Monday. "And the president said to go with commercial partners, to go with international partners, and to utilize the resources on the moon for future space exploration."

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The president has also called on Bridenstine and his agency to go faster in order to eliminate political risk -- the risk of programs being terminated and objectives changing as political winds shift and administrations turn over.

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"If it wasn't for the political risk, we would be on the moon right now," Bridenstine said Monday. "We would probably be on Mars right now."

With the added pressure of an accelerated timeline for the agency's return to the moon, Bridenstine recently decided to shake up NASA leadership, reassigning William Gerstenmaier, the longtime associate administrator for human exploration.

During Monday's press conference, Bridenstine said that the leadership change was his decision and his decision alone. He told reporters that he had not spoken with the president or vice president about the change.

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Despite the president's clear directives for NASA, there remains much uncertainty at the agency -- like who will replace Gerstenmaier and how much it will ultimately cost to return astronauts to the moon by 2024.

Bridentstine has previously said he thinks it will cost between $20 billion and $30 billion, but on Monday, the administrator said the total could be considerably less than that if NASA can continue to work out cost-saving relationships with commercial partners.

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Bridenstine said he is continuing to drum up bipartisan support for NASA's moon and Mars missions among the nation's lawmakers. He is hoping a renewed focus on the Artemis mission will help him do that -- a mission, he said, that will exemplify NASA's commitment to diversity.

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"In the Apollo era, all of the astronauts came from backgrounds that included either fighter pilots or test pilots, which back then included no opportunities for women," Bridenstine said. "Here we are, today, a generation later, ready to go back to the moon sustainability with a very diverse, highly qualified astronaut corps that includes a dozen women, with a program named after the twin sister of Apollo, Artemis."

In previous remarks, Bridenstine has said that he and his colleagues at NASA will continue to elaborate, in the coming months, on the ways the Artemis mission and a return to the moon will help the agency ultimately put an astronaut on the surface of Mars.

"We are working right now to putting together a comprehensive plan for how we would go about planning a Mars mission," he said.

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When asked whether NASA had moved on from a potential target date of 2033 for a Mars mission, Bridenstine said he wasn't in agreement with all of the assumptions made in a recent report suggesting such a date was unrealistic.

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"I'm not willing to rule out a 2033 date," he said.

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