National Space Council calls for human return to the moon

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CHANTILLY, Va. — With the space program’s past as a backdrop, Vice President Mike Pence vowed Oct. 5 to reinvigorate the nation’s future in space through policies developed by the National Space Council, including a renewed emphasis on human missions to the moon.

Pence, chairing the first meeting of the Council since its reestablishment by an executive order in June, specifically instructed NASA to develop plans for human missions to the moon that will serve as a step toward later expeditions to Mars.

The Council accepted a recommendation by Pence that the U.S. “will lead in the return of humans to the moon for long-term exploration, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations,” he said. That recommendation will be incorporated into a decision memo to be submitted to the president.

“You’ve got a big job ahead of you,” Pence said to NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, representing the agency on the Council. “The Council is going to need the whole team at NASA to work with the Office of Management and Budget to provide the president with a recommended plan to fill that policy.” Pence asked that the plan be submitted within 45 days.

That request came after Pence, in opening remarks at the meeting held in the space gallery of the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center here, put a human return to the moon on the path towards the long-term goal of humans to Mars.

“We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” he said. “The moon will be a stepping-stone, a training ground, a venue to strengthen our commercial and international partnerships as we refocus America’s space program toward human space exploration.”

The idea of returning humans to at least the vicinity of the moon, if not the lunar surface, had the support of some executives who testified before the Council later in its two-and-a-half-hour meeting, including one who called for accelerated development of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft.

“Now, with a renewed sense of purpose and urgency, NASA and its industrial partners should be challenged to substantially accelerate the use, and to fully exploit the capabilities, of the SLS/Orion system,” said Dave Thompson, president and chief executive of Orbital ATK.

“Backed by this administration’s financial and moral support, U.S. astronauts can carry out several cislunar voyages during the next five years,” he argued. NASA’s current plans call for the first crewed SLS/Orion mission to take place no sooner than 2021, and more likely 2022.

Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, also offered support for development of a lunar facility of some kind. “Now is the time for swift and bold action. A permanent presence on the moon and American boots on the surface of Mars are not impossible, and they are not long-term goals,” she said.

SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk, mentioned a lunar base as one potential destination for the company’s “BFR” reusable launch system under development when he spoke Sept. 29 at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia. “It’s 2017. I mean, we should have a lunar base by now,” he said.

In a statement issued after the meeting, Lightfoot said that plan could include the Deep Space Gateway, a concept for a cislunar outpost that the agency unveiled earlier this year and has had discussions about with potential international partners, but which is not yet a formal NASA program.

“Based on a number of conversations I’ve had with the Council, we have highlighted a number of initiatives underway in this important area, including a study of an orbital gateway or outpost that could support a sustained cadence of robotic and human missions, as well as ensuing human missions to the lunar and Mars surfaces, and other destinations,” he said in the statement.

“We’ve got to bring back a plan based on the new change in policy directive they talked about up front, about returning back to the moon and then moving on to Mars,” Lightfoot told reporters after the meeting concluded.

Other Council activities

The call for a revised human space exploration plan was just one of the action items to emerge from the meeting. Pence also called on the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation, along with the OMB Director, to conduct a “full review of our regulatory framework for commercial space” to identify potential reforms to streamline operations.

Companies at the hearing made some recommendations. Shotwell noted that it “requires heroics” when the company wants to make even minor changes to existing launch licenses issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, such as changing a launch from one pad to another.

Bob Smith, the recently-appointed chief executive of Blue Origin, said that the development of reusable launchers threatened to create duplication of regulations between the U.S. Air Force and the FAA. “This is a good opportunity to go change that regulatory environment, because reusability will be the thing that actually changes the economics getting to space,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said that the National Security Council was developing a “space strategic framework” to support American “vital interests” in space. Much of that framework is classified, McMaster said, but some key unclassified elements include U.S. leadership in space, unfettered access to space, and support for international cooperation.

“What we will do with your approval,” he told Pence, “is we will now begin to flesh out this strategic framework. We will identify, and we will do this collaboratively with those who are here today and beyond, the specific tasks, the resources and the authorities required.” Pence said he supported such an effort for the next 45 days for later presentation to President Trump.

All three of those actions Pence instructed the Council to carry out fit into a theme of his speech that the United States had lost the lead in spaceflight. “America seems to have lost our edge in space,” he claimed, citing as evidence continued reliance on Russia for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station as well as the development of counterspace capabilities by China and Russia.

“We have resolved, with the leadership of President Donald Trump, to never again let America fall behind in the race for space,” he said. “America will lead again.”

However, industry witnesses were reticent to agree with Pence that the U.S. was no longer a leading space power. When Pence asked one panel if the U.S. had fallen behind, executives from Boeing and Lockheed Martin evaded giving a direct answer, emphasizing the importance of space and saying that the country can accelerate its space activities with more resources.

SpaceX’s Shotwell seemed to reject the premise entirely. “America is out-innovating the rest of the world in space launch,” she said, citing the increased number of commercial launches and development of reusable stages. “This is a market, commercial space launch, that the United States used to dominate in the ’90s. We lost it in the 2000s, and we are bringing that back to the United States, along with the thousands of jobs that follow it.”

Early praise

The Oct. 5 meeting was the first for the National Space Council since the administration of President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. The Council, which at the time was not able to effectively align national space policy among government agencies, was disbanded in the Clinton administration and not revived until this year.

Representatives of space companies, both established and emerging, and industry organizations at the meeting supported this new effort to coordinate national space policy through the Council.

“We are encouraged by the dedication and interest demonstrated by the Council today,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a statement after the meeting. He added his organization, which includes many emerging space companies, looked forward to “collaborating with the Council to advance the administration’s space agenda.”

“We were encouraged by, and offer our full support for, the statements made by Vice President Pence today that U.S. leadership in space is a priority for this administration,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and chief executive of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, another industry group, in a statement. Her group expects to be “working closely with the administration and with Congress to advance national leadership in human space exploration, science and commerce in deep space.”

Another attendee of the meeting was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a long-time space advocate. “This communicates the degree to which the Trump administration really wants to make space a major focus,” he said of the meeting to reporters afterwards. He said he expected the Council to take action early, particularly on regulatory issues.

“I think he very seriously wants this to work,” Gingrich said of Pence’s role leading the Council. “He wants to be part of the team that gets America so deeply invested in space that you actually have an entirely new space ecosystem by the end of the administration’s second term.”

Others, though, took a wait-and-see approach about the Council’s effectiveness. “I’m optimistic that they’re going to try,” said John Logsdon, founding director and professor emeritus of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, after the meeting. “Words are the first step to action, but they’re not action.”