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Vice President Mike Pence at KSC
Vice President Mike Pence addresses a gathering at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida with a prototype Orion spaceship as a backdrop. (NASA via YouTube)

Vice President Mike Pence, the newly minted chairman of a revived National Space Council, said today that President Donald Trump is committed to a return to the moon and a push onward to Mars.

Pence laid out the broad strokes of the Trump administration’s aspirations for space exploration during a visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Here from this bridge to space, our nation will return to the moon, and we will put American boots on the face of Mars,” Pence declared.

He cast last week’s revitalization of the National Space Council, which was disbanded by the Clinton administration in 1993, as a signal that space policy would be given a higher profile.

“For nearly 25 years, our government’s commitment seems to have not matched the spirit of the American people,” Pence said. “But I’m here to tell you, that as we still enter this new century, we will beat back any disadvantage that our lack of attention has placed, and America will once again lead in space for the benefit and the security of all of our people and all of the world.”

Pence cited Trump’s characterization of space as “the next great American frontier” and said NASA’s work would be reoriented toward human space exploration. He vowed that the United States would maintain a constant presence in low Earth orbit while sending missions onward to the moon, Mars and beyond.

However, Pence provided no specifics about funding or shifts in the focus of NASA’s robotic or crewed space missions. The Trump White House has not yet selected an executive secretary for the space council, or a permanent NASA administrator. (But the space agency’s current caretaker chief, Robert Lightfoot, said he was looking forward to working with the council.)

In a tweet, former Obama White House space policy official Phil Larson said the speech was a “nothingburger, as they say.”

“Probably wrong to read tea leaves, when there was no tea,” he wrote.

Larson, who now serves as an assistant dean at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, also noted that the reference to returning to the moon could refer to robotic NASA missions, or efforts led by commercial ventures.

Such efforts are already in the works. Moon Express, for example, is aiming to begin a series of lunar lander missions this year. And Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, has proposed building a “Blue Moon” lander to deliver payloads to the lunar surface.

Over the past few months, NASA’s roadmap for space exploration has shifted its focus to the development of a Deep Space Gateway that could harbor crews in lunar orbit in the late 2020s, and serve as a way station for lunar landings as well as trips to Mars in the 2030s.

Nothing in Pence’s speech ran counter to that roadmap. However, it’s not likely that the details, or any resulting budget requests, will be forthcoming until the National Space Council and its industry-focused advisory group are up and running.

Pence said the council would meet for the first time “before the summer is out.”

Meanwhile, SpaceX founder Elon Musk is continuing to work on his own roadmap for Mars settlement, with flights to the Red Planet potentially beginning in the 2020s. Last month, Musk said he was gearing up to release an updated version of the plan, including details about how to pay for the giant rockets that would be required.

Update for 12:30 p.m. PT July 6: In a text message, Larson expanded upon his reaction to Pence’s speech:

“It was heartening to see him allude to growing public-private partnerships, but lack of policy details, personnel and budgetary priorities is concerning. Usually you have a leader visit, tour and give a speech to roll out a detail-oriented policy after it’s been developed. This is backwards.

“Depending on the details, this backwards speech could signal a backwards space policy, meaning rolling back the progress that’s being made instead of building on the commercial space policies that Reagan began and Obama accelerated.”

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