Vice President Mike Pence opens the sixth meeting of the National Space Council Aug. 20 at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

CHANTILLY, Va. — Nearly five months after directing NASA to accelerate its plans to return humans to the surface of the moon, Vice President Mike Pence said Aug. 20 that the agency’s efforts since then were “on track.”

Pence, chairing the sixth meeting of the National Space Council since its reestablishment two years ago, didn’t make any sweeping changes in civil space policy like at the previous meeting March 26 in Huntsville, Alabama, when he called on NASA to land humans at the south pole of the moon within five years.

Instead, Pence focused on the progress NASA had achieved on key elements of its exploration effort, known as the Artemis program, including the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft as well as NASA’s plans, announced since the previous council meeting, to work with industry to develop human-rated lunar landers.

“The Artemis mission has already begun. We’re well on our way to making NASA’s moon-to-Mars mission a reality,” Pence said in opening remarks at the meeting, held at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center here, with the space shuttle Discovery as a backdrop for the event.

“Our moon-to-Mars mission is on track, and America is leading in human space exploration again,” he said later in his speech.

During the main council meeting, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, sitting next to Pence, reiterated the progress the agency was making towards its human space exploration goals on programs like SLS and the lunar Gateway. “Mr. Vice President, things have changed since March, and we are moving rapidly under your direction and the direction of President Trump,” he said.

There was, at this meeting, a greater emphasis on looking beyond a human return to the moon towards human missions to Mars. Since President Trump criticized in a tweet in June what he perceived as an overemphasis on discussing a human lunar return, NASA has more prominently discussed how going back to the moon can lead to human missions to Mars.

Trump has, in several speeches since then, mentioned NASA would be sending humans to Mars, overlooking nearer-term plans to return to the moon. “In a program that has just started, someday very soon, American astronauts will plant our beautiful Stars and Stripes on the surface of Mars,” Trump said in a July 30 speech in Williamsburg, Virginia. NASA has not set a date for a human Mars mission, although independent studies such a mission is not feasible for the agency before the mid-2030s.

Pence referred to the president’s comments during a passage of his speech about the importance of long-duration stays on the moon and learning to use resources there. “Once we return to the moon, we’re going to develop the technologies to live and thrive in a multi-month expedition at its south pole,” he said. “Using what we learn on the moon will bring us closer to the day, as the president said, that American astronauts will plant the Stars and Stripes on the surface of Mars.”

Bridenstine tied development of the lunar Gateway to Mars exploration as well. “It is also evolvable,” he said of the Gateway. “It is an opportunity for us to take humans deeper into space than we’ve ever gone before in human history and, in fact, that is our ship to get to Mars.”

Bridenstine, in his remarks at the meeting, mentioned he was at the White House a day earlier to brief the National Security Council on the agency’s exploration plans. While he there, he said, Victoria Coates, a senior director of the council, brought in a box of M&M candy in a box with the presidential seal on it.

“I said, ‘What is that all about?’” he recalled. “And she said, ‘M and M: Moon and Mars.’”

Bridenstine and Pence
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine holds up a box of M&M candy he was given at the White House to remind him of the goal of sending humans to the moon and Mars. Bridenstine, sitting next to Vice President Mike Pence, spoke Aug. 20 at a meeting of the National Space Council. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine holds up a box of M&M candy he was given at the White House to remind him of the goal of sending humans to the moon and Mars. Bridenstine, sitting next to Vice President Mike Pence, spoke Aug. 20 at a meeting of the National Space Council. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

A “leaner” NASA

While Pence touted the progress NASA had made in the last several months, he suggested that the agency needed to make changes to operate more efficiently.

“We’ll continue to transform NASA into a leaner, more accountable and more agile organization,” he said in his opening remarks. “Isn’t that right, Jim?” Bridenstine nodded.

“We’re going to make it easier than ever to recruit and retain the world’s brightest scientists, engineers and managers, and we’re going to hit our goals and make new American history in space,” Pence added.

Pence didn’t elaborate on those proposed changes. At the end of the two-hour meeting, he summarized a list of recommendations he presented to the council for their approval. They included “specific timelines for reforms of workforce, acquisition rules, management and industrial base issues,” he said. The recommendations also call on NASA to designate an office and submit a plan in the next 60 days for “sustainable lunar surface exploration and the development of crewed missions to Mars.”

The council approved the recommendations unanimously without discussion. The White House did not make the full text of those recommendations immediately available.

Regulatory reform updates

The National Space Council meeting also touched on ongoing efforts to revise commercial launch and remote sensing regulations. The public comment period for a notice of proposed rulemaking for commercial remote sensing regulations closed in July, while the comment period for a notice of proposed rulemaking for commercial launch and reentry regulations closed Aug. 19.

“We have received extensive feedback from U.S. companies in the fast-developing and extremely competitive global market for remote sensing,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said at the meeting. He said his department was working with the State Department and other agencies to review the comments submitted and incorporate them into a final version of the revised regulations for licensing commercial remote sensing systems.

The final rule, he said, should come out this fall. “We think by the end of October we should have that work completed,” he said when asked about the schedule by Pence. Some in industry, though, are skeptical about that schedule, given the volume of industry comments and likely interagency debates about how to incorporate them.

The Department of Transportation, through the Federal Aviation Administration, is now turning its attention to comments submitted regarding its launch licensing regulations, many of which were critical of various aspects of it. “It’s obvious the proposed rule has generated a lot of interest and a lot of questions,” said Steven Bradbury, general counsel of the department.

Bradbury said the FAA met with a number of companies and organizations about the proposed rule, including Blue Origin, Boeing, the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit. Those one-on-one meetings took place instead of a broader public meeting about the proposed rules that many in industry requested.

“We will be hard at work over the coming months to address concerns and consider potential revisions to improve the final rule,” he said. “Our goal is to publish a final rule by early fall of next year.”

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...