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NASA commits to returning astronauts to the moon by 2024

Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, speaks at a State of NASA address at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, introducing the agency's 2021 budget request and outlining it's priorities for the next decade. Photo by NASA/Twitter
Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, speaks at a State of NASA address at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, introducing the agency's 2021 budget request and outlining it's priorities for the next decade. Photo by NASA/Twitter

Feb. 10 (UPI) -- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024.

"We are ushering in an unprecedented era of human spaceflight," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who heads America's space agency, said Monday while introducing the agency's latest budget request.

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At last year's "State of NASA" speech, Bridenstine said NASA was aiming to return astronauts to the moon by 2028. In the months between then and now, both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence called on NASA to accelerate the timeline.

In the latest budget request, President Donald Trump called for a $25 billion NASA budget for 2021, a 12 percent increase over the previous fiscal year's budget.

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"This is a 21-century budget worthy of 21st-century space exploration and one of the strongest NASA budgets in history," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a State of NASA event unveiling the budget. "If the president's support for NASA wasn't clear before, it sure is now."

"Now we must deliver, it us up to us to deliver," Bridentstine said.

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During the speech, delivered from Stennis Space Center, outside Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, Bridenstine highlighted the numerous programs funded in the president's latest budget request.

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The request includes $3.3 billion for building the spacecraft needed to get humans to the moon as part of its Artemis program.

"2020 marks the first time we've had direct funding for a human landing system since the Apollo program," Bridenstine said.

The vehicles that will carry astronauts to the moon and beyond include NASA's heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion deep-space capsule.

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"The Space Launch System rocket is the foundation of our 21st century space exploration missions to the moon and to Mars," Bridenstine said.

Though Boeing remains NASA's prime contractor for the development and construction of the Space Launch System, Bridenstine insisted that the design and production of the heavy-lift, multistage rocket has involved contributions from hundreds of companies -- small, medium and large -- from all over the country.

"The SLS is in fact America's rocket," Bridenstine said.

The Orion crew capsule is one several payloads that NASA expects SLS to carry into space in the coming years.

"Orion is the first human spacecraft we've built for deep space missions in over a generation," the space agency's leader said.

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In his speech, Bridenstine also touched on the financial commitment the budget makes to a variety of programs designed to produce technological innovations that could be used for operations on the lunar surface and eventually on Mars.

The administrator also detailed the latest budget request's emphasis on planetary science, including $415 million for the launch the James Webb Space Telescope, planned for 2021.

"It is going to see for the first time the first light in the history of the universe," Bridenstine said.

Before humans make it to Mars, NASA plans to send more rovers. The 2021 budget request includes $529 million for robotic Mars exploration, including the Mars 2020 rover mission.

"The Mars 2020 rover is also a very important mission that will rewrite science textbooks," Bridenstine said. "And it will include -- and I love this part -- the first ever helicopter to fly on another world."

The budget request also includes funds for research programs related to so-called "industries of the future" -- technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing and advanced communications.

President Trump's budget request calls for the elimination of several Earth science and science education programs.

As the budget proposal makes its way through Congress, it is likely to be significantly tweaked. In addition to making alterations to the allocation of funds, changes to the budget made by Congress are likely to call for more details on the expected total cost of the Artemis program.

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Congress could even push NASA to adopt a more conservative timeline for the agency's return to the moon.

Bridenstine said he will continue to push for Congress to support NASA's program priorities.

"Friends, we are the Artemis generation, and we are going," Bridenstine said to conclude Monday's address.

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