"By studying these precious lunar samples for the first time, a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of our lunar neighbor and prepare for the next era of exploration of the Moon and beyond, " said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.
'So NASA is committed to making sure that we have a broad and diverse set of talent'.
Boeing has spent years developing the SLS, or Space Launch System, which would be the most powerful rocket ever built, with the goal of resuming manned space missions to the Moon. The astronauts who picked up these rocks on the moon's surface didn't know them to be any more special than the hundreds of pounds of other rocks they collected. "I'm talking human-rated landers, compatible with Gateway, that can go back and forth to the surface of the moon".
One of the tasks will be to examine "space weathering". Instead of launching Orion on a trajectory straight to the moon, it would look at the possibility of flying it to orbit around the Earth.
That scenario isn't a slam-dunk.
Wicker noted that there wasn't much time between now and mid-2020, but Bridenstine said there might be time enough. "Here's the glory of the United States of A. We have an wonderful capability that exists right now that we can use off the shelf to accomplish this objective".
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"I want to be clear: NASA has a history of not meeting launch dates, and I'm trying to change that", Bridenstine said.
He said it was too early to determine the cost of taking the commercial, two-launch route for EM-1.
Bridenstine noted this option might require more money from Congress.
This first mission coming up - essentially a three-week test flight - would carry no crew and would not land. The Gateway is fully funded in the 2020 budget proposal, Bridenstine said.
The plan, which has been in development over the last few years, relies on the developing Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, along with the Gateway orbital platform. The possibility of launching components on multiple heavy-lift rockets and assembling them in orbit could open the door wider for arguments that the SLS is unnecessary.