KENNEDY SPACE CENTER -- Vice President Mike Pence honored the men who first landed on the moon on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on Saturday -- and he praised those who plan to follow in their steps, saying "the next man and first woman on the moon in the next five years will be American astronauts."
Pence didn't reveal many new details about the Artemis program to return to the moon by 2024 at the Kennedy Space Center event, other than disclosing the Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsule that will fly on NASA's first unpiloted test flight, called Artemis 1, is ready to complete preparations for flight. The vehicle is scheduled to perform the test next year as one of the precursors to the moon landing, a mission estimated to cost a total of $20-30 billion.
His remarks clarified NASA's next steps to the moon and onto Mars, a directive muddied by President Donald Trump's statements -- including as recently as Friday in the Oval Office, in talking with Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins -- that openly questioned a return to the moon and calling for a direct mission to the red planet instead.
In regard to NASA's other astronaut program, in which it is partnering with SpaceX and Boeing to return astronauts to space from American soil, Pence hedged from earlier comments that the program would launch with crew by the end of the year, changing it to "within the next year."
"We will once again send American astronauts into space on American rockets from American soil," Pence said at the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Building, named for the first man to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Armstrong's family was at the ceremony along with Aldrin, Gov. Ron DeSantis and NASA Director Jim Bridenstine.
The vice president recalled watching the landing as "a little boy sitting in front of our black and white television in the basement of our home in Indiana."
The Apollo astronauts, he said, "made an indelible mark, not just on my imagination but on the imagination of my generation and every generation to come."
He spoke about Armstrong and Aldrin running 600 simulations of the Lunar Module landing but still facing an unexpected challenge when an alarm suddenly went off. But they brought in the lander to the lunar surface with just a few seconds of fuel left over, without the millions watching on TV ever knowing something was wrong.
"And yet, how calm they were. Working with the team back here on Earth they quickly resolved the problem without betraying the slightest anxiety," Pence said. "...That, my friends, is what they used to call the right stuff."
Apollo 11, he said, "is the only event in the 20th century that stands a chance of being widely remembered in the 30th century. A thousand years from now, July 20, 1969, will likely be a day that will live in the minds and imaginations of men and women, as long as there are men and women to remember it across this world, across this solar system and beyond."
The ceremony, with its frequent praise of Trump, multiple Republican congressmen and no Democrats and even featuring Trump's pre-rally music, often had the feel of a political rally. It marked the end of anniversary commemorations for Apollo 11 and marked the highest profile public introduction to the Artemis program.
But launching the first Orion capsule by July 2020 will only take place, however, if the Boeing-built Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful ever built, is ready in time. The vehicle has been grossly over budget and behind schedule, also putting into question NASA's timeline.
Meanwhile, NASA's Commercial Crew program with SpaceX and Boeing to build astronaut capsules endeavors to allow the U.S. to again begin sending astronauts from American soil to space -- something pointedly referred to in Pence's remarks. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has had to send its astronauts on Russian Soyuz rockets at about $80 million a seat to the International Space Station, including one such launch less than an hour before the ceremony.
But both SpaceX and Boeing's capsules have faced major hurdles, including the explosion of a SpaceX spacecraft during testing in April at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Speaking about the explosion this week, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's vice president of build and flight reliability, said it's going to be "increasingly difficult" to get crew aboard its capsule in in space by the end of the year.
Since Pence announced in March that the U.S. would set out to get astronauts on the moon by 2024 instead of 2028, as originally planned, the space agency has been working to accelerate the path to the lunar surface.
But since that March announcement, the Trump administration has oscillated. In a June 7 tweet, Trump said that for all the money NASA is spending it "should NOT be talking about going to the Moon -- We did that 50 years ago." The focus, he felt, should be on Mars.
The issue came up again Friday, when Collins and Aldrin met with the president, vice president and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in the Oval Office.
"To get to Mars you have to land on the moon, they say. Any way of going directly without landing on the moon, is that a possibility?" Trump asked Bridenstine, who explained that the moon will serve as a "proving ground" for technologies to help get to Mars.
This article is written by Steven Lemongello and Chabeli Herrera from The Orlando Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.