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Vice President Mike Pence at National Space Council meeting
Vice President Mike Pence delivers opening remarks at the National Space Council’s inaugural meeting, conducted at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. The shuttle Discovery looms in the background. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

The Trump administration plans to send astronauts and robots back to the moon in as little as five years’ time, as a prelude to Mars missions.

That’s one of the calls to action emerging from today’s first meeting of the reconstituted National Space Council under the leadership of Vice President Mike Pence.

“We will return American astronauts to the moon,” Pence declared, “not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond.”

The details for doing that could come as a follow-up to today’s meeting, which brought together top administration officials and space industry leaders at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

The attendees included Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and a bevy of other Cabinet and White House officials. Air Force Gen. Paul Selva represented the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On the industry side, the witnesses included the CEOs of aerospace heavyweights such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK, as well as executives from more recent market entrants such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corp.

One of the big questions had to do with the capabilities and the time frames for beyond-Earth space exploration. The heavyweights touted their involvement in NASA’s efforts to develop the Orion deep-space capsule and heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket.

Orbital ATK’s CEO, David Thompson, told the council that it was feasible to send American astronauts to the vicinity of the moon in “a period of five years or less … and shortly thereafter, if we so choose, to return both astronauts and their robotic helpers to the surface of the moon.”

NASA’s current schedule calls for putting astronauts on their first flight beyond Earth orbit by 2022, which is five years away.

During a different panel presentation, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell referred to her company’s plan to develop its own giant rocket known as the BFR, or in her words, the Big Falcon Rocket.

“There is a renaissance under way right now in space,” Shotwell said. The BFR could facilitate journeys to the moon as well as to Mars, and even point-to-point rocket trips on Earth.

Shotwell said the “Earth hops” would be “some of the first tests that you’ll actually see with the Falcon spaceship.”

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith talked up the step-by-step approach that was being pursued by his company’s owner, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. Smith said Blue Origin’s suborbital space vehicle, known as New Shepard, was on track to start flying tourists and researchers within the next 18 months.

The Kent, Wash.-based company is also talking to NASA and national security officials about having its next-generation, orbital-class New Glenn rocket certified for government space missions, Smith said. And he said Blue Origin’s Blue Moon concept for delivering cargo to the lunar surface could be turned into a reality within the next five years.

All those plans depend on funding levels, which were not discussed in depth during today’s meeting.

The industry executives emphasized the importance of having a stable, sustained vision for the space effort – rather than the moon vs. asteroid vs. Mars debate that has dominated the past decade’s worth of space policy. They also called for streamlining regulation of the commercial space industry – a plea that pricked up the ears of White House budget director Mike Mulvaney.

Pence tasked Mulvaney, Chao and Ross with conducting a “full review of our regulatory framework for commercial space enterprise” and reporting back to the White House in 45 days.

He also pushed through a policy recommendation voicing support for enhancing America’s leadership in space, and eventually expanding humanity’s presence across the solar system.

The latter part of the council’s meeting focused on the role of space activities in national security. Retired Navy Adm. James Ellis, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, said concerns about the security of space assets have become sharper – not only because of potential threats from other nations, but also because of non-state actors.

“A few dragons have been replaced by 100 snakes,” he said.

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and former astronaut Pam Melroy voiced concerns as well.

“Speed, the tempo of decision and information, is the problem, because our adversaries have figured out how to move inside our military decision loop,” said Melroy, who put in a stint as deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office after leaving the astronaut corps.

She called on the National Space Council to press for the development of low-cost satellite constellations, under the direct control of military commanders, to supplement existing space assets. “We have to have more sensors to get more frequent updates,” she said.

Griffin said the nation’s GPS navigation and timing system could be especially vulnerable to space-based interference, because it plays a role not only in military communication but in commercial applications ranging from automobile guidance to automatic banking.

“To what extent do we believe that we have defended ourselves, if an adversary can bring our economic system near collapse?” he said. “We may not lose a single piece of hardware, but we’re not functioning as a nation.”

White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert underscored that concern, saying that he understood that the GPS system had “vulnerabilities that are being exploited on a regular basis.”

Griffin said it was important to make clear to potential adversaries what sorts of space activities would cross a red line.

“With regard to GPS, and frankly other elements of our critical infrastructure, we need to be extremely clear that an attack on these assets is an attack on the United States … and that we will not tolerate it,” he said.

White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said he and other officials were working on a mostly classified Space Strategic Framework, emphasizing America’s pre-eminence in space as well as cooperation with friends and allies.

“America First doesn’t mean America alone,” McMaster said.

Pence called for the framework and an implementation plan to be completed within 45 days, to be passed along to President Donald Trump. The vice president also said an advisory group, comprising industry experts as well as other stakeholders, would be relaunched “very soon.”

Pence said the council’s meeting was a “very good start” for a re-examination of America’s space policy. But not everyone agreed. Keith Cowing, the editor of NASA Watch and a longtime commentator on space policy, said in a blog posting that the proceedings were “scripted and predictable.”

Former space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said in a tweet that the meeting offered “bold talk … but we’ve heard it before.”

“What counts will be resources ($) and long term commitment,” Hale said.

There was little mention of NASA’s current space activities at the meeting.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot made the sole reference to today’s hours-long spacewalk at the International Space Station, which was under way even as the council met. And NASA’s current robotic program, which has spacecraft operating on the Martian surface, in orbit around Jupiter and on the very edge of the solar system, drew hardly any attention.

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