Vice President Mike Pence speaks at NASA's Johnson Space Center Aug. 23. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence used a speech Aug. 23 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to reiterate the nation’s space exploration policy without breaking new ground.

In a speech at the center after a tour of some of its astronaut training and other facilities, Pence largely offered an overview of the Trump administration’s space policy activities, from the reestablishment of the National Space Council to Space Policy Directive 1, which calls on NASA to return humans to the moon and ultimately go to Mars.

“While our sights are once again set on our lunar neighbor, we’re not content just leaving behind footprints, or to leave it all,” Pence said. “The time has come, we really believe, for the United States of America to take what we have learned over these so many decades, put your ingenuity and creativity to work, and establish a permanent presence around and on the moon.”

Pence offered few specifics about how that would be done, emphasizing the development of vehicles like the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, as well as the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway in cislunar space.

One new detail he offered was a claim that the first astronaut crew would board the Gateway by 2024. “We’re only a few short years away from launching the Gateway’s first building blocks into space, turning science fiction into science fact,” he said. “Our administration is working tirelessly to put an American crew aboard the Lunar Orbital Platform before the end of 2024.”

NASA’s current plans call for the launch of the Gateway’s first element, a power and propulsion module, on a commercial launch vehicle in 2022. Subsequent modules would be delivered as “co-manifested payloads” on SLS Block 1B launches of crewed Orion spacecraft, which would allow astronauts to make at least short-term stays at the Gateway on those missions while the facility is still being assembled.

Pence contrasted the current administration’s space policy with that of previous administrations. “Some say America doesn’t need to go back to the moon, that we need to focus on issues closer to home,” he said. “Truthfully, that kind of thinking led people in the past to even cancel the Constellation program. That would have put people back on the moon by 2020.” He did not note that, as chairman of the fiscally conservative Republican Study Committee in the House in the mid-2000s, he issued proposals for spending cuts that included “NASA’S New Moon/Mars Initiative,” also known as Constellation.

Pence also discussed other space policy aspects not related to NASA in his speech, including a space traffic management policy signed in June as well as the administration’s proposal to establish a Space Force as a separate military branch. “As we speak, the Department of Defense is moving forward with initial steps to strengthen American security in space,” he said. “The United States Department of Space Force will be a reality by 2020.” That, he acknowledged, will require approval by Congress.

Pence was introduced by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who praised the administration’s attention to space policy. “I want to be clear about how good we have it with this administration and how good they are to NASA,” he said.

Both Bridenstine and Pence acknowledged Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, who attended the event. “John has been a long-time friend and mentor of mine, and I’ll tell you, he loves everything that we do here at NASA,” Bridenstine said. Prior to his visit to JSC, Pence attended a fundraiser for Culberson, who is facing a strong reelection challenge.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...