Today, Vice President Mike Pence gave a lengthy speech about the future of US space policy, in which he provided no concrete details about what the administration’s agenda for space will look like. During a visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Pence made it very clear in his speech that the US would “once again lead in space,” but didn’t say what that actually meant.
He didn’t mention any new additions to NASA’s leadership team either, which means the space agency is still left without a permanent administrator and no clear direction for its future under President Trump. “Usually you have a leader visit, tour, and give a speech to roll out a detail-oriented policy after it’s been developed,” Phil Larson, a former space advisor for the Obama administration and assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s college of engineering, tells The Verge. “This is backwards.”
The only real news from the speech was that the newly resurrected National Space Council will be meeting for the first time before the end of the summer. Pence is the chairman of the council, a group that is tasked with guiding US space policy. It was in existence during the ‘60s and temporarily formed again under the George H.W. Bush administration. On Friday, Trump signed an executive order to bring the council back, with a few staff members listed and several open positions. But it’s still unclear who else will be on the council and exactly how the group will be involved in making policy.
Pence was vague today about direction. He mentioned that the US “will return to the Moon and put American boots on the face of Mars.” That’s been the plan for a while now. Under Obama, NASA was squarely focused on sending humans to the surface of Mars. Meanwhile, NASA has tentative plans to build a human space station near the Moon called the Deep Space Gateway. The agency would then use that outpost as a way to train for future crewed trips to the Martian surface. Pence didn’t say whether returning to the Moon meant putting people on its surface.
Pence’s comments suggested NASA would prioritize human spaceflight — with more public-private partnerships. "In conjunction with our commercial partners we'll continue to make space travel safer, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before,” he said during the speech. He complained that he missed SpaceX’s launch yesterday from Kennedy Space Center. Does that mean commercial companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin will have more opportunities to work with NASA on future projects? Here as well, Pence wasn’t specific.
That’s the problem: it was a speech with very little substance. There were many anecdotes about the US’s past achievements in space, Pence argued that recent administrations had failed to “match the spirit of the American people” when it came to creating space policy. Multiple times he insisted that Trump would open “a new era of American space leadership.” But the most recent presidential budget request calls for cutting NASA’s funding, as well as canceling some of the agency’s offices and programs. Space is expensive. How does Pence plan to match our ambitions with our missions if there isn't a detailed money plan?
So, six months into the Trump administration, NASA doesn’t have any space policy priorities or definitive leadership. NASA administrators are often instrumental in steering the direction of the space agency, and without one, the agency will lack a strategy for how to move forward. This is now the longest amount of time NASA has been without a new permanent administrator; the record was previously held by President Richard Nixon, who took 164 days after his inauguration to fill the position, according to the Planetary Society. NASA’s current acting administrator Robert Lightfoot, who took over temporarily when Trump was inaugurated, has now served longer than that. And there’s no indication when a new administrator will be named.
“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 started and Obama continued,” says Larson.
Pence’s speech, full of vague platitudes, wasn’t a space policy. It remains unclear when the Trump administration means to create one.