Pence at KSC
Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at the Kennedy Space Center, said the U.S. space program would refocus on human spaceflight. Credit: NASA TV

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence said July 6 that the U.S. space program would refocus on human spaceflight, including missions to the moon and Mars, but offered few other details about what such a shift would entail.

Pence, in a speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said a reconstituted National Space Council, set to hold its first meeting by the end of this summer, would help reestablish American leadership in space that he claimed has been lacking for the last quarter-century.

“Under the leadership of President Donald Trump and with the guidance of the National Space Council, the United States of America will usher in a new era of space leadership that will benefit every facet of our national life,” he said.

The council, last active at the end of the administration of President George H.W. Bush in 1993, will be reestablished under an executive order signed by Trump June 30. The council will be similar in format to its previous iteration, chaired by the vice president with a membership that includes the heads of a number of cabinet-level and other agencies.

The White House has not released other details about the council, including who will serve as executive secretary, its day-to-day leader, but Pence said the council will be ready to start work later this summer. “I look forward to holding the first meeting of the National Space Council before the summer is out,” he said.

Once in operation, the council will review current space policies and long-term goals for national space activities, he said, providing advice to the president on those and related issues. Pence did not state how long he expected any initial review of current space policies, or the development of a new national space policy, to take.

Pence, speaking in the Vehicle Assembly Building where space shuttles and Saturn 5 rockets were prepared for flight, said the administration would provide a renewed emphasis on human spaceflight, including human missions to the moon and Mars.

“Under President Donald Trump’s leadership, we will reorient America’s space program towards human space exploration and discovery for the benefit of the American people and all of the world,” he said. “We will return our nation to the moon, we will go to Mars and we will still go further, to places that our children’s children can only imagine.”

That new focus on human spaceflight, he argued, was key to restoring U.S. leadership in space that he suggested was lacking today. “Under President Donald Trump, America will lead in space once again,” he said, one of several such statements in his speech.

Pence offered no details about how such a reorientation would be carried out, nor any schedules for human missions to the moon or Mars. Pence did not even specifically state that NASA would send humans back to the surface of the moon, although did say that “we will put American boots on the face of Mars.”

Other than reestablishing the National Space Council and signing a NASA authorization bill in March, the administration’s actions to date have not matched that rhetoric. The White House has yet to nominate a NASA administrator or deputy administrator, nor given a clear indication of when such a nomination might be made.

While NASA received more than $19.6 billion in the final fiscal year 2017 spending bill passed by Congress in early May, the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget request offers just under $19.1 billion for NASA. That includes more than $350 million in cuts in the agency’s flagship human space exploration programs, the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft.

Those cuts have received criticism from supporters of those programs in Congress. “The current administration picks up where the previous administration left off, by projecting a lofty vision for space while providing a budget that keeps the vision from leaving Earth,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, at a June 29 hearing about the NASA budget proposal.

A House spending bill, approved by an appropriations subcommittee June 29, would increase NASA’s budget to nearly $19.9 billion in 2018, including restoring funding for SLS and Orion to 2017 levels.

“We made sure the Space Launch System is fully funded, and that astronauts will have the ability to go beyond low Earth orbit in the Orion crew vehicle,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of that appropriations subcommittee, during the markup of the bill.

Pence, in his remarks at KSC, emphasized the importance of the private sector in ensuring American leadership in space. The backdrop to his speech included a flown SpaceX Dragon capsule and a mockup of a Boeing CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle, as well as the Orion capsule that flew on a brief December 2014 test flight.

“I’m particularly excited to see the increased collaboration with our burgeoning commercial space industry, so much in evidence here,” he said. “We’re going to continue to foster stronger partnerships between government agencies and innovative industries across this country.”

He also alluded in his remarks to the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from nearby Launch Complex 39A that took place on the evening of July 5. “I was praying for rain at the Kennedy Space Center so we might see that rocket go up today,” he said.

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...