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VP Mike Pence
With NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule serving as a backdrop, Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a meeting of the National Space Council at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA via YouTube)

Space industry deregulation, and the potential perils posed by China’s space program, shared the spotlight at today’s meeting of the National Space Council, presided over by Vice President Mike Pence.

Commercial space ventures and NASA’s vision for deep-space exploration also got shout-outs when members of the council, newly named advisers and other VIPs gathered inside the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“As we continue to push further into our solar system, new businesses and entire enterprises will be built to seize the infinite possibilities before us,” Pence declared. “And there will be no limit to the jobs and prosperity that will be created across this country.”

Pence praised NASA’s exploration program, which is now focused on setting up a future outpost in lunar orbit, as well as entrepreneurial advances such as SpaceX’s maiden launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket earlier this month.

But he said overly restrictive regulations were holding back the full power of the commercial space effort. “Our government agencies have too often remained stuck in the past,” Pence said.

Council members recapped what they’ve been working on since their first meeting, which was conducted last October near Washington, D.C.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who attended the Falcon Heavy launch, paid his own tribute to SpaceX’s achievement — which ended up sending a Tesla Roadster sports car into deep space with a spacesuit-clad Starman mannequin in the driver’s seat.

“Somewhere out there in space, there’s a bright red Roadster going thousands of miles per hour, the fastest car in history,” Ross said. “We had better keep up with it.”

Ross said his department was taking steps to streamline the organizational chart for space industry regulation, with an eye toward creating a “new one-stop shop for space commerce.”

By July, the department should complete a legislative proposal for an under secretary of space commerce — a so-called “space czar” — who would take responsibility for all commercial space regulatory functions.

The Transportation Department was tasked with revising its regulation system so that a single license could be issued for all types of launch and re-entry operations. That overhaul is due to be completed by April of next year.

Export licensing requirements, an oft-cited bugaboo for commercial space ventures, will undergo a policy review — with a set of recommendations for reform due back to the full council by the end of the year.

On the national security side of the space issue, government officials and experts raised concerns about Russian and Chinese activities. Susan Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, said those two countries could have the “operational capability in the next few years” to hit U.S. space assets by using jamming techniques, laser strikes or other anti-satellite weapons.

Gordon said China was rapidly building up its space capabilities, in areas ranging from satellite and rocket manufacturing to quantum communications. “China has the best politically supported and best resourced foreign space program that we have seen in many years,” she said.

White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the Trump administration was ready to respond to potential threats.

“Space has now joined land, sea and air as a warfighting domain,” he said. “While we prefer that conflict not extend to space, the United States will be prepared if it does.”

During panel testimony, Heritage Foundation policy analyst Dean Cheng raised concerns about the “heavy military component” in China’s dual-use space program.

“Given the interest in melding civilian and military capacity, as well as past evidenced behavior in the telecom sector, it is vital to recognize that these private firms will, at the end of the day, respond with alacrity to central government directives,” Cheng said. “The Chinese model will not be Teslas in space, but Huawei in space.”

NanoRacks CEO Jeff Manber, however, called for U.S. space officials and executives to engage more fully with their Chinese counterparts. Manber’s company plays a role in managing logistics for payloads heading to the International Space Station, and has plans to develop commercial space stations.

“It’s my opinion, as a space businessman, that the United States cannot simply ignore China’s commercial space ambitions,” he said. “China is quietly developing a robust commercial space industry. I say ‘quietly’ because Americans are blinded by our own regulations, and mindset, from participation.”

He said U.S. officials should negotiate a “stern but fair agreement with China” that would let U.S. companies enter the Chinese space marketplace.

When Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked how best to strike a balance between American competitiveness and national security concerns, Manber responded that space station operations provided a good model for dealing with technology transfer issues.

Manber said the years ahead could provide an opening to reshape the U.S.-Chinese trade relationship, with space serving as a new commercial frontier. “I can see no better opportunity,” Manber said.

In other developments:

  • Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot acknowledged that the space agency’s heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, would not make its first uncrewed test flight until 2020. The first crewed SLS-Orion mission is still due to take a trip around the moon and back in 2023.
  • Lightfoot touted NASA’s initiatives to support a commercial moon landing by 2020, commercialize space station operations in low Earth orbit by 2025, and start building a new outpost in lunar orbit by the mid-2020s. He said NASA would work to extend the International Space Station to additional nations.
  • During this week’s visit to Florida, Pence took tours of several NASA and commercial space facilities. Here are some of the Twitter snapshots…
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