Pence astronauts
Vice President Mike Pence applauds NASA's newest class of astronauts in a June 7 ceremony at the Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence used a ceremony announcing NASA’s latest class of astronauts June 7 to restate the administration’s plans to reestablish the National Space Council, but set no timetable for formally doing so.

Pence, in an address at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said the plans to restore the council, inactive for nearly a quarter century, was part of a “coherent and cohesive approach” to space policy by the administration, one that the White House has, so far, offered few details about.

“I’m especially excited to say to announce, after more than two decades from when it was disbanded, that soon, President Trump will relaunch the National Space Council, and it will be my great honor as Vice President of the United States to chair the new National Space Council,” Pence said in his remarks.

“America needs a National Space Council once again,” he said, noting the two previous times the council was active, during the early years of the Space Age in the late 1950s and 1960s, and again during the administration of President George H.W. Bush in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“Our National Space Council will reenergize the pioneering spirit of America in space, and it will ensure that America never again loses our lead in space exploration, innovation and technology,” Pence said.

Pence did not indicate when the council would formally be reestablished, but his comments at the astronaut ceremony were not the first time he discussed the council. At a March 21 signing ceremony for a new NASA authorization bill at the White House, Pence said that the president would sign an executive order establishing the council “in very short order,” with Pence chairing it.

That executive order has not been signed yet. At a May 1 symposium on ultra low cost space access, Bob Walker, a former chairman of the House Science Committee who, as a space policy advisor during the Trump campaign, recommended reestablishing the council, said the order had been drafted and was awaiting the president’s signature.

“It’s a matter of timing,” Walker said at that event. “I think they’re hoping to announce the executive secretary of the space council at the same time that they announce the formation of the space council.”

Pence offered few specifics in space policy, other than a suggestion that the administration will focus NASA on human space exploration over areas like Earth science. “We must reorient our civilian space program towards deep space exploration, and provide the capabilities for America to maintain a constant presence in low Earth orbit and beyond,” he said.

He also emphasized “increased collaboration with commercial space industries” in his speech, but offered no details about what such collaborations might entail.

Pence’s speech otherwise offered generic support for NASA and space exploration, including a personal interest in space — what he described as “space fever” — that he said dates back to watching launches from the early space program as a boy growing up in Indiana. He also discussed the president’s support for the issue. “President Donald Trump is firmly committed to NASA’s noble mission, leading America in space,” he said.

The address was the keynote of an event where NASA unveiled a new class of 12 astronauts. That group — seven men and five women — comes from a mix of science and technical backgrounds, including some from academia and the military, as well as one engineer who previously worked for SpaceX.

The new astronauts, selected from a record-high applicant pool of 18,300, will begin two years of training in August, after which they will be eligible for flight assignments. That will include preparing to fly both NASA’s Orion spacecraft as well as commercial crew vehicles under development by Boeing and SpaceX for missions to the International Space Station.

“You have joined the elites. You are the best of us,” Pence told the astronaut class. “You carry on your shoulders the hopes and dreams of the American people.”

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...