Pence: U.S. Wants to be Leader of “Freedom Loving” Countries in Space

Pence: U.S. Wants to be Leader of “Freedom Loving” Countries in Space

In a decidedly U.S.-centric speech, Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly told an international space audience today that the United States wants to be the leader of “freedom-loving” nations as humans move into deep space.  He was not specific about which countries are in or out of that category, but his tone is noticeably different from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine who constantly champions international cooperation, especially in the Artemis program.  He is hoping to sign up all of the current International Space Station partners, which include Russia, a country that some might not characterize as freedom-loving.

The only country Bridenstine specifically excludes from his list of potential space exploration partners is China because under the terms of the so-called Wolf Amendment, Congress does not permit NASA to work with China unless very strict conditions are met.

China may well be who Pence had in mind, but the sweeping statement and the fact he reiterated it again and again left many wondering if the U.S. stance on international space cooperation has changed.   At a press conference this afternoon, Bridenstine was asked if the United States no longer is using space cooperation to bring countries together, but to separate them.

Bridenstine clearly does not think so.  He again lauded the positive value of space cooperation and noted, as he often does, that the U.S.-Russian space relationship remains strong despite geopolitical differences.  After mentioning the known difficulties in cooperating with China because of the Wolf Amendment and intellectual property theft concerns, he concluded Pence probably was referring generally to excluding countries that “are more harmful than helpful.”  He did not mention any, however.

Pence and Bridenstine both spoke at the 2019 International Astronautical Conference (IAC) taking place in Washington, D.C. this week.  Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the IAC brings together several thousand of the world’s top space scientists, engineers, policymakers, and government and industry leaders.  The theme this year is “SPACE: The Power of the Past, the Promise of the Future.”

Despite the international audience, Pence’s speech seemed aimed at Americans.  It sounded very similar to past space speeches, with praise to President Trump for restoring U.S. leadership in space, reestablishing the National Space Council (which Pence chairs) and making America “open for business to all space enterprises.”

Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks during the opening ceremony of the 70th International Astronautical Congress, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

He noted that Canada, Australia and Japan have agreed to work with NASA on the Artemis program and Europe may do so soon.  But after quoting Trump as saying “It is America’s destiny…to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the unknown,” he went on to restate it with a different twist:

“But to be clear, our vision is to be the leader amongst freedom-loving nations on the adventure into the great unknown.

“And here at this International Astronautical Congress, let me say the United States of America will always be willing to work closely with like-minded, freedom-loving nations, as we lead mankind into the final frontier.

“As more nations gain the ability to explore space and develop places beyond Earth’s atmosphere, we must also ensure that we carry into space our shared commitment for freedom and the rule of law and private property.” — Vice President Pence

Next he brought up the Space Force, saying it will be in place soon “defending our freedom, and defending the rights of all freedom-loving nations in the vast expanse of space.”  His meaning was unclear there as well.  The House and Senate are still debating the details of what the new Space Force will do, but generally it will be a new military service, under the Air Force, tasked with the “organize, train, and equip” function.  It will not defend anything.  If necessary, that would fall to U.S Space Command, the recently reestablished unified combatant command for space.

Freedom-loving came up several more times as the speech progressed.  Granted, “freedom-loving countries” routinely appears in Pence speeches on a variety of topics, but it raised eyebrows at this international space conference where NASA is trying attract partners.

Interestingly, Wu Yanhua, Vice President of the China National Space Administration, was listed in the conference’s online program as a speaker on the Heads of Agencies panel this afternoon, but he was not there.  Audience members could ask questions electronically and others could vote on them to indicate which had the highest interest. The question of “where is China” was top ranked. Panel moderator Pascale Ehrenfreund, head of the German Space Agency, said it was simply a timing conflict, but there were many other Chinese participants in the technical sessions.

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