America plans to return to the moon within five years — not as a nostalgic walk down memory lane, but as a “proving ground” for an eventual manned mission to Mars, NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said Tuesday.

The U.S. space agency plans to test launch the rocket next year that eventually will return astronauts to the moon. The manned mission will orbit the moon as part of a plan to have a “sustainable” presence on the celestial body by 2028, Bridenstine said at The Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs.

That will require missions to test vehicles that will take astronauts to the surface and back; crew members will live in a spacecraft that will orbit the moon, he said.

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Missions to the moon and Mars are cornerstones of a new frontier for NASA, he said, and could help ease the memories that Bridenstine and his generation have of astronauts losing their lives in the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.

“That is what this is all about — capturing the imagination of the American public and inspiring the next generation of space professionals,” Bridenstine said. “We need to replace those memories with new achievements, and we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to return to the moon.”

He called on other international space agencies to join in the goal of returning to the moon and eventually reaching Mars, saying it’s not an “America-only” project and could only be accomplished with help from other nations. Bridenstine said the partnership on the International Space Station “needs to grow.”

In addition to next year’s lunar rocket test, NASA plans an unmanned mission to Mars to collect samples and return them to Earth. The agency also will use a helicopter to research how to convert carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere to oxygen needed to sustain life on the surface.

Bridenstine said NASA also aims to develop technology to enable its goals of sustaining humans on the moon and eventually traveling to Mars.

“Phase one of this goal is returning humans to the moon as soon as possible, and phase two is making that presence sustainable by 2028,” he said. “We will do that by using things that exist or nearly exist. We will need reusable components, and that is a key strategic capability for this country. We will be the only country in the world with this capability.”

Bipartisan political consideration will be needed provide NASA’s budget to return to the moon and take people to Mars. Bridenstine warned that budget gridlock could threaten those goals by forcing NASA to operate under a continuing resolution, which keeps the same budget in place months at a time.

He also saluted the astronauts who landed on the moon nearly 50 years ago. They included Apollo 10 commander Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford, who led the “dress rehearsal” mission before the 1969 moon landing and who was in the audience for Bridenstine’s speech.

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