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Big Space Exploration Dreams from Administration with Few Details Yet

WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence offered vague plans last week of sending Americans to the moon and Mars, while also announcing that the National Space Council, which will advise the president on U.S. space programs, will hold its first meeting in nearly 25 years later this summer.

“Our nation will return to the moon, and we will put American boots on the face of Mars,” Pence said Wednesday during a tour of the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The vice president did not offer any specific timeframe or exact details for either endeavor.

A week before Pence’s NASA visit, President Trump signed an executive order re-establishing the National Space Council, which was created in 1989 and dissolved in 1993. Pence will chair the council, which will include the secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce, Transportation and Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence, among other officials.

“Our National Space Council will reenergize the pioneering spirit of America – and it will ensure that America never again loses our lead in space exploration and technology,” Pence said.

President Trump in March signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, a piece of legislation introduced by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and a handful of others that added human exploration of Mars as one of NASA’s key objectives. The legislation envisions completing a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s. Trump during a videoconference with astronauts aboard the International Space Station in April said, “We’ll do it a lot sooner than we’re even thinking.”

NASA has requested $19.1 billion for fiscal 2018. A House appropriations subcommittee in June approved a spending bill that provides NASA with $19.9 billion for 2018. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate during NASA budget hearings earlier this year criticized proposed cuts as outlined in the administration’s budget. The fiscal 2018 figure is within range of budgets for fiscal 2017 ($19.5 billion) and 2016 ($19.3 billion). According to Office of Management and Budget figures, NASA funding was at its height in 1966 ($43.6 billion in 2014 dollars). In 1969, the year the U.S. landed men on the moon, NASA was funded $27.6 billion (2014 dollars).

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NASA’s 2018 budget request lists $4.7 billion for space operations, including $1.5 billion for the International Space Station and $3.9 billion for exploration. According to agency documents, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will be used to identify oxygen products and life forms on exoplanets, is on pace to launch in 2018. The telescope is expected to build on discoveries made by the Hubble Space Telescope, with greater capability in tracking longer wavelengths. The telescope’s first target will be Trapist 1, a star with seven habitable, Earth-sized planets orbiting. LHS 1140B, a massive planet with earthlike features, is the second target.

NASA also has stated that its Mars rover is on pace for a 2020 launch, furthering the agency’s efforts in robotic exploration of the planet. The 2020 rover is a car-sized vehicle designed to explore signs of historical microbial life on Mars, as well as analyze habitability of the Red Planet.

Pence during his visit to Florida also welcomed 12 new American astronauts to NASA. NASA’s Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot noted that the agency fielded 18,300 applications for the most recent class, which surpasses the 1978 record of about 8,000. NASA has rostered 338 astronauts in agency history.

Lightfoot outlined the agency’s objectives before Senate lawmakers in June, listing the priorities as extending deep-space human presence, exploring habitable planets and environments, further analysis of Earth, obtaining a greater understanding of the time period when stars were first developing and “opening the space frontier.” Pence on Wednesday said that Trump plans to usher in a new era of space exploration that will benefit every “facet of our national life.”

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