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Why the Trump administration wants to return to the moon in partnership with industry

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In the shadow of the space shuttle Discovery, Vice President Pence‬ delivers remarks before convening the first meeting of the National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., on Oct. 5. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In opening the first meeting of the resurrected National Space Council, Vice President Pence said Thursday that the United States would regain a leadership role in human space flight by embarking on a return mission to the moon, building the foundation to go to Mars.

Pence offered no specific timeline. Speaking before a group of cabinet members and the chief executives of several top space companies, he said the moon would be a “steppingstone, a training ground” that would eventually propel humanity deeper into the cosmos in partnership with the growing commercial space industry.

While he called for a renewed emphasis on exploration, he also said the council, designed to help guide U.S. policy in space, would need to create a more robust national security response to advances made by Russia and China in developing “jamming and hacking” capabilities that can “cripple” military and intelligence satellites.

Pence’s call to return to the moon was the official declaration of a much-discussed goal of the Trump administration. Its nominee to take over NASA has advocated returning to the moon. And NASA has said it would solicit proposals from industry to develop landers that could take cargo and experiments to the lunar surface by as soon as next year.

It also marked a reversal from plans pushed by the Obama administration. In 2010, Obama famously said of the moon that “we’ve been there before” and that NASA should instead focus on reaching an asteroid and Mars.

In his opening remarks, made before the space shuttle Discovery at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, Pence made it clear that the Trump administration would build on Obama’s reliance on industry — both the large traditional contractors and the growing group of entrepreneurial companies — to get there.

Many top corporate leaders have decried the Trump administration over a number of issues, and two corporate advisory boards disbanded. But on Thursday, the heads of several top space and aerospace executives, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Orbital ATK, spoke before the council, saying they were ready and eager to work with the administration and fulfill its goals in space.

(Blue Origin founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“Now is the time for swift and bold action,” Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, told the council. “A permanent presence on the moon and American boots on the surface of Mars are not impossible and not long-term goals.”

The Trump administration didn’t nominate a new NASA administrator, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), until August. And Bridenstine still hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate. But Pence has shown a key interest in space, visiting both the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Texas.

He said the reconstituted council, dormant for some 25 years, would help the United States regain a leadership role in the cosmos. The council, initially created during the Eisenhower administration, includes the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, transportation and homeland security, in addition to other government officials, including the NASA administrator.


Vice President Pence‬, second from right, is joined by Cabinet officials during the first meeting of the resurrected National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., on Oct. 5. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Asked whether the Space Council would make a difference, John Logsdon, a space historian and the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said he was “optimistic that they are going to try. It’s not words. It’s actions. It’s the commitment of resources.”

Logsdon noted that relying so heavily on the commercial sector could pose problems. “I note the Falcon Heavy has yet to fly,” he said, referring to SpaceX’s heavy-lift rocket. “Some aspirations are reasonable, and some aren’t.”

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Pence lamented what he called “America’s abdication of leadership in space” and called to “refocus America’s space program toward human exploration of discovery” at a time when NASA has to rely on Russia for rides to the International Space Station.

While it hasn’t flown humans to space in six years, NASA has launched probes, such as New Horizons to Pluto and Cassini to Saturn. The agency put the Curiosity rover on Mars. And as Pence was speaking Thursday morning, American astronauts Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei were performing a spacewalk outside of the International Space Station.

During his speech, Pence cited the advancements made by adversaries that allow soldiers to communicate in war zones, that guide precision munitions and keep an eye on adversaries.

Congress has also grown increasingly concerned about space as a key domain in war, and the House has proposed creating a Space Corps, which would become the first new military branch since the Air Force was created in 1947.

The vice president also lamented the fact that the United States has not had the ability to fly American astronauts to space since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. Instead it has paid Russia hundreds of millions of dollars to fly NASA’s astronauts to the space station.

Boeing and SpaceX are currently under contract from NASA to develop spacecraft that could fly astronauts to the station.

Pence expressed a sense of urgency to get those programs moving.

“When the space shuttle program ended in 2011, we had four years to find an assured way for our astronauts to get into space,” he said. In the meantime, we agreed to pay Russia to hitch a ride on their rockets. … Here we are, in 2017, still relying on the Russians to ferry our astronauts to the International Space Station.”

He noted that the United States “has not sent an American astronaut beyond low-Earth orbit in 45 years.”

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