Moon trumps Mars in new US space policy

Veep Pence calls for Luna to become stepping stone for farther missions, constant US presence in low-Earth orbit

The United States' National Space Council Policy has met for the first time in 25 years and issued a new “Policy for Future American Leadership in Space”.

The Council was revived by president Donald Trump in a June 2017 executive order, after it stopped operating in 1993. Re-establishing the Council was a Trump policy.

The Council met for the first time last week and vice-president Mike Pence's remarks painted a picture of the US's current space efforts as lacking focus and having fallen behind other nations' efforts.

He therefore outlined a policy “for America to maintain a constant commercial, human presence in low-Earth orbit”. Once that's done, the nation “will turn our attention back toward our celestial neighbours. We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond.”

But there was no mention of when America might venture to Mars, as Pence added: “The Moon will be a stepping-stone, a training ground, a venue to strengthen our commercial and international partnerships as we refocus America’s space program toward human space exploration.”

Pence also addressed the national security aspect of space, and said that “Russia and China are pursuing a full range of anti-satellite technology to reduce U.S. military effectiveness, and they are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine.”

The vice-president's response was to say “America must be as dominant in space as we are here on Earth” without any further detail.

Pence gave the Council's members a “45-day timeframe for turning around recommendations and proposals to the President based upon this first meeting of the National Space Council.”

NASA responded with a statement in which acting administrator Robert Lightfoot welcomed the new direction and said it “builds on the hard work we have already been doing on the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, our efforts to enable our commercial partners and work with our international partners in low-Earth orbit at the International Space Station, and what we have been learning from our current robotic presence at the Moon and Mars.”

Lightfoot added that the new guidance will see NASA “work with industry and the international community on robotic lunar landers that explore the nature of the Moon and its resources, such as water.”

Absent from both statements is a mention of Mars as anything other than a distant goal, a change from president Barack Obama's explicit call for US astronauts to walk on Mars “by the 2030s”.

Both presidents' policies may turn out to be moot if private space companies plans come to fruition. Elon Musk, for example, last month articulated a plan to reach Mars as early as the year 2024. ®

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