Pence Promises Return to Moon, Boots on Mars, But No Specifics

Pence Promises Return to Moon, Boots on Mars, But No Specifics

Vice President Mike Pence promised today to “reorient” the U.S. space program towards human exploration, starting with a return to the Moon and “boots on the face of Mars,” but provided no specifics on when or how that will happen or the source of the money to accomplish it.  The FY2018 Trump budget request for NASA does not include funding even for the modest lunar-orbiting Deep Space Gateway.  No announcement was made about who will be nominated to be NASA Administrator or who will serve as Executive Director of the White House National Space Council.

President Trump reestablished the Space Council by Executive Order on Friday.  As Vice President, Pence is its chairman.  This was Pence’s first space policy address in that capacity.  He said that he plans to hold the first meeting of the Council by the end of the summer.

Pence spoke in the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to a crowd of NASA and contractor employees along with members of Congress and other state and local politicians.  Among them were Florida’s two U.S. Senators: Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R).  Rubio flew to KSC with the Vice President on Air Force Two, which landed at the Shuttle Landing Facility at KSC.  Also present in the VAB were Florida Reps. Bill Posey (R) and Ron DeSantis (R).  Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin also was there.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at Kennedy Space Center, July 6, 2017.  Screengrab from White House video.

Pence and Rubio were met by Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, KSC Director Bob Cabana, and KSC Deputy Director Janet Petro.  All three NASA officials and Pence spoke on stage with three space capsules as the backdrop:  the first SpaceX Dragon to take cargo to the ISS, NASA’s Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) capsule that was launched on a test flight in 2014, and a Boeing CST-100 Starliner training module.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot at Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building, July 6, 2017, introducing Vice President Mike Pence.  A SpaceX Dragon capsule, the Lockheed Martin Orion EFT-1 module, and a Boeing CST-100 Starliner training module are in the background.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

The speech was long on generalities about restoring American leadership in space, but contained only a few kernels that may indicate what this Administration is planning.

Pence said the Trump Administration will “reorient America’s space program toward human space exploration and discovery.”

“We will return to the Moon.  We will go to Mars, and will go still further to places that our children’s children can only imagine.  We will maintain a constant presence in low-Earth orbit, and we will develop polices that will carry human space exploration across our solar system and ultimately into the vast expanse of space.”

Later he added: “Like the pioneers that came before us, we will settle that frontier with American leadership, American courage and American ingenuity.”

The bold words were not accompanied by timetables or funding projections, however.  Presidents George H.W. Bush in 1989 and George W. Bush in 2004 personally asserted that American astronauts would return to the surface of the Moon and someday go to Mars, but neither followed through with the requisite funding.  President Barack Obama eliminated the goal of returning humans to the lunar surface in part because of the high cost of building landers to take astronauts from orbit to the surface and back.  Instead he focused on the goal of sending humans to orbit Mars by the 2030s.  Lunar orbit — not the surface — would serve as a steppingstone to Mars, a pronouncement that was met by strong disapproval from many in the space community.

Today, Pence said “we will return to the Moon,” but did not specifically state that he meant returning astronauts to the surface.  He had just referenced the Apollo 11 mission,so It could inferred from the context, but the words were not spoken. is seeking clarification from the Vice President’s office, but no response was received by press time.

Trump’s FY2018 budget request for NASA certainly does not include funding for such an effort.  It cancels Obama’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, a mission that involved astronauts in lunar orbit demonstrating technologies and techniques needed for a humans-to-Mars mission, but does not replace it with an alternative.  NASA officials have been promoting the concept of a Deep Space Gateway in lunar orbit — a modest habitat that could be used as a testbed and as a node for missions to or from Mars — but the FY2018 budget request does not include money for it.  The budget request only funds the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule for their first flights.

As previous Administrations have discovered, announcing bold goals for human spaceflight is much easier than implementing them.

Another question is what the Trump Administration plans for NASA’s non-human spaceflight programs.  Pence said they will “reorient” NASA towards human spaceflight, but it already consumes half of NASA’s programmatic budget.  The FY2018 request, excluding the two accounts that fund agency and center operations and construction and environmental compliance, is approximately $15.8 billion.  Human spaceflight — the International Space Station and Exploration — account for $7.8 billion.  The rest is for science ($5.8 billion), aeronautics ($624 million) and space technology ($678 million).  Shifting resources from those activities to human spaceflight almost certainly would encounter resistance.

The Vice President praised NASA’s partnerships with the private sector and vowed that “in conjunction with our commercial partners, we’ll continue to make space travel safer, cheaper and more accessible than ever before.”  It remains to be seen, however, how much the private sector will expect from the government in terms of development dollars or guaranteed purchases before investing their own capital.  NASA’s commercial cargo and commercial crew programs require significant government funding despite their characterization as “commercial.”

The Trump Administration has been in office for less than 6 months, so in one respect it is not surprising that details are not yet available.  On the other hand, President George H.W. Bush announced his commitment to returning to the Moon and going to Mars at about the same point in his presidency.   Space policy veterans undoubtedly are hoping that the outcome will be different this time.

The text of the speech and a video from the event are posted on the White House website.

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