Jim Bridenstine said US President Donald Trump’s desire to put humans back on the Moon by the year 2024 would provide an opportunity to test its technology and capabilities before carrying out a mission to land on Mars by 2033.
However, Mr Bridenstine admitted that the agency was working on an amendment to its budget request to deal with the accelerated shift towards the Moon.
“We want to achieve a Mars landing in 2033, but in order to do that we have to accelerate other parts of the programme, the Moon is a big piece of that,” the administrator told the congressional Science, Space and Technology Committee.
“By moving up the Moon landing four years... we can move up the Mars landing.”
Last week, US vice president Mike Pence told Nasa he wanted the US to return to the Moon within five years, specifically the lunar south pole, which “holds great scientific, economic and strategic value”.
“America will once again astonish the world with the heights we reach and the wonders we achieve, and we will lead the world in human space exploration once again,” he said at a meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, Alabama.
Mr Bridenstine said there was a “very new direction” for the country’s approach to space exploration, adding: “This time, when we go we’re going to go to stay.”
Asked whether he thought the space agency could achieve the new goal, he said it is “in the realms of possibility” and the country can “move out on it and achieve it”.
The last manned Moon landing happened in 1972, as part of the Apollo 17 mission.
There have only been six times that astronauts have walked on the Moon, all of which were carried out by Nasa as part of its Apollo programme.