Pence Reassures Johnson Space Center That Its Best Days Lie Ahead

Pence Reassures Johnson Space Center That Its Best Days Lie Ahead

Vice President Mike Pence spoke at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) today.  He was in the Houston area for a fundraiser for Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who is in a tight reelection race.  The speech offered no new policy pronouncements, but reiterated familiar themes about American leadership in space and offered reassurances that JSC’s best days still lie ahead.

JSC is home to NASA’s astronaut corps and it manages the International Space Station (ISS) and Orion crew spacecraft program.  Orion is designed to be launched by NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) to send astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars.  With all the focus these days on the commercial sector and public-private partnerships, however, some wonder what the future is for NASA’s own human spaceflight activities and therefore JSC.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at Johnson Space Center, August 23, 2018. Screengrab.

Pence made it clear:  “The Johnson Space Center is a national treasure, and all the men and women who work here are a national asset.”  SLS and Orion are “emblematic” of American leadership in space and the time has come to “establish a permanent presence around and on the Moon.”

Most of his speech followed a familiar pattern of criticizing the Obama Administration for cancelling the Constellation program, which was designed to return humans to the Moon before going to Mars, and praising President Trump’s decision to restore the Moon “as the focal point” of the U.S. human spaceflight program.  Saying launch of the first element of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is only “a few short years away,” he said the goal is to have astronauts aboard “before the end of 2024.”

That would put it at the very end of a second term if President Trump is reelected.

While calling the ISS an “unqualified success,” Pence added that “it has a finite lifetime” and direct funding will end in 2025.  “We have to prepare immediately for what comes next.” He went on to rue the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011, which he said cost 3,200 contractor jobs at JSC and meant NASA has had to rely on Russia for getting to and from the ISS for the past 7 years.  But the Trump Administration “will not repeat the mistakes of the past,” with the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs demonstrating the value of public-private partnerships. JSC is a “thriving hub” of those partnerships and will “continue to play an essential and irreplaceable role in navigating America’s future in low Earth orbit.”

“The most important work and the best days for the Johnson Space Center are yet to come.  Count on it.”

Although Pence was at a civilian space center, he could not resist mentioning the Space Force that he and President Trump are determined to create as a sixth military department.  He offered no news, but restated that the Administration is working with Congress to stand up a Department of the Space Force by 2020.

Overall, the event seemed like a combination of a celebration of JSC and political rally for Culberson and other Texas Republican politicians.  Culberson was there and Pence mentioned Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn who were back in Washington since the Senate was in session today.  Cruz is also in a close reelection race.  He was attending the confirmation hearing for James Morhard to be NASA’s Deputy Administrator where most of his questions centered on the future of ISS and the JSC workforce.

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