CU Boulder’s Jack Burns to Pitch Man’s Lunar Future to Pence, National Space Council

March 21, 2019 GMT

University of Colorado astrophysicist Jack Burns will have the ear of Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the National Space Council on Tuesday when he addresses them about humans’ future on the moon.

Burns, a CU professor of astrophysics and planetary science and also vice president emeritus for academic affairs and research at the university, is no stranger to the current administration. He served on the presidential transition team for NASA, and also had a direct hand in writing the directive that President Donald Trump issued in December 2017, which called for returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972, with an eye toward eventually traveling to Mars and beyond.

“The Space Council now is looking to hear from a small group of us, two of whom were on the transition team, and to see an update on where we are and how we can accelerate the development of the moon for exploration and science,” Burns said in an interview Thursday.

The moon is increasingly a renewed focus for many in the international space community, he said.

“The moon is the destination that you hear about from the international community, whether it is the Chinese, the Indians have a lander that is coming up, the Japanese, the Russians, the European Space Agency,” Burns said.

“The lunar poles continue to be a prime destination, which is one of the things I will talk about on Tuesday. That’s where the water is. One of the surprise discoveries over the last decade there, is the permanently shadowed craters at the poles contain water ice, and it looks like a substantial amount water ice.”

In the 2017 White House directive concerning lunar exploration, Trump framed the moon as “a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars,” and Burns spoke to that concept on Thursday.

“It’s certainly a springboard to Mars, because there is so much we have to learn about living and working on an alien and, frankly, hostile world,” Burns said. “We have to deal with a radiation environment, how to mine resources, and live off the land. And the water on the moon becomes a much better analogue to Mars than we thought, a few years ago.”

Boulder-area space writer Leonard David agreed that the moon, for many, is currently where it’s at. Or, where many aspire to be at.

“The Moon is now in the cross-hairs of multiple nations... and this time to stay,” said David, whose latest book, “Moon Rush — The New Space Race” is to be published by National Geographic in May.

“Earth’s Moon is where the action will be as we learn how best to survive and thrive on our celestial next door neighbor. Jack Burns is a leader in carrying out important scientific research and underscores a key fact: the moon is far from being a been there done that world.”

Burns is traveling to the fifth meeting of the National Space Council at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for Tuesday’s talk.

In contrast to the Apollo program, which was America’s bid to establish supremacy in space over the Soviet Union, Burns said that a successful venture now will be a collaboration between NASA, other nations’ space agencies and also private industry, which is increasingly interested in opportunities in space.

“And for companies to really build a business plan that will close, they need to know what is the form of the ice, and how difficult is it to extract that from the moon?” Burns said.

“So, a perfect first mission to be funded by NASA, with some cooperation by other countries, would be a mining expedition to the poles,” Burns said. “This is what I am going to push on Tuesday. Let’s get there as quickly as possible, have a small rover go into those shadow craters and learn how easy or difficult it is to extract this water ice.”

On the timeline Burns envisions, that could happen sooner than some might have thought.

“I think our goal has to be in the early 2020s — 2022, 2023 at the very latest. I think a lot of us would like to see this happen within two to three years,” Burns said.

“If we do rapid development and prototyping, which frankly NASA hasn’t been known for recently, but operate like the private sector does, we could get there in a couple of years or so.”

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, brennanc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan