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Mike Pence: Lower-Earth orbit just a training ground

‘For too long America was content with lower-Earth orbit’

In a speech heavy on promoting President Donald Trump‘s space plans, Vice President Mike Pence Tuesday dismissed NASA’s ambitions for the last 40 years as “content with lower-Earth orbit” and declared from here on out that would be merely the training ground for deep-space exploration.

“The truth is, as all of you know, for too long America was content with lower-Earth orbit and missions focused on Earth, instead of aiming for the stars,” Pence said in his opening remarks Tuesday to the National Space Council in Virginia.

“Earth orbit is not our final destination but rather is a training ground for the infinite frontier in space. And I can assure that the American people are ready for the next chapter in our nation’s history in space,” Pence declared.

Pence, who chairs the council, offered few new developments.

Yet he expressed confidence that the United States, the military, NASA, and private space companies were moving forward on ambitious timetables the administration has set, to again launch American astronauts from America, to go to the moon again, to establish a base there, to go to Mars, and to establish a sixth branch of military, the U.S. Space Force.

The  American astronauts’ launches, aboard SpaceX and Boeing rockets, the Mars mission, projected into the late 2030s, and the rockets to carry them all began in the administration of Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama. So did an aggressive handoff of much of lower-Earth orbit space exploration to private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Yet Pence emphasized the moon missions that emerged as national commitments under Trump, and also the expanded commitment to NASA and to military space defense, including financial commitments. He noted that the 2019-20 federal budget provides the largest amount of money ever for NASA, more than $21 billion, and that the administration is seeking to increase that by another $1.6 billion in the next budget.

The theme of the Trump administration, repeated often in Pence’ speech, was America recapturing leadership in space after decades of while NASA pursued multiple directions for space science exploration and other countries joined the space race.

“I’m proud to report that under President Trump’s leadership all of that is changing. As the president said in his inaugural address, ‘We stand at the birth of a new millennium ready to unlock the mysteries of space,’ and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Pence said. “America is leading in space once again.”

Among goals that Pence assured the National Space Council that they would achieve:

– Putting American astronauts in America-launched rockets again by the end of this year.

– Putting the next man and the first woman astronaut on the moon by 2024.

– Establishing a “permanent presence” on the moon to use it as a training ground for survival in space, including developing the abilities to find, mine, and process water and fuel.

– Continuing the plans to reach Mars.

“Not only are we planning to go, we are preparing to go,” Pence said.

– Unleashing private-sector space business. Pence said the administration is expanding the Obama-era efforts by seeking to streamline federal licensure of launches, space operations, and reentry; reducing and rewriting regulations; and by creating a “space traffic management policy.”

The latter may address concerns that private launch companies have raised about the difficulty securing private launch dates at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, with the Air Force reserving large windows of the calendar, keeping both launch sites off limits to others.

“In the first half of this year, we’ve seen almost as much invested in space companies as we’d seen in the entire year before,” Pence said.

– Creating a new defense service branch, the U.S. Space Force.

“We are working with Congress as we speak to stand up a new branch of our Armed Forces. Soon Congress will approve and the president will sign the sixth branch of the Armed Forces of the United States, the United States Space Force,” he said.

Currently the United States is pursuing an altogether different strategy, the cross-branch, United States Space Command, which some military leaders and members of Congress defend as more appropriate than a separate branch of the military.

For that, Florida is seeking to influence the Trump administration to overrule the Air Force’s decision that had narrowed the potential locations for that command’s headquarters to sites in Colorado, California, and Alabama, dismissing Florida’s bid. Pence did not elaborate on it.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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