By Mona Salama, TES Contributor
The Trump Administration has moved one step closer to realizing its goal of space exploration.
The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the creation of Space Force, the military’s sixth branch and an opportunity to establish America’s influence in an increasingly important domain.
Indeed, the need to gain a foothold in space is a priority the current Administration values. Since taking office, President Trump designated space a “vital interest” and has made it clear his desire to renew America’s commitment to its space program that ended in 2011 under President Obama.
Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, echoed the President’s bold new vision for space in March by proclaiming the Administration’s goal of sending “American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years.” Pence’s message was unequivocal: American astronauts will return to the Moon by 2024, and it is up to NASA to make that happen.
To accelerate NASA’s efforts and cut down on costs, Pence proposed using commercial launch systems, signaling that the Administration is expanding its purview outside of Washington bureaucracy to include the private sector to cut down the cost and help stay on schedule.
“If a commercial company can deliver a rocket, a lunar lander, or any other capability faster and at a lower cost to the taxpayer than the status quo, then NASA needs to have the authority and the courage to change course quickly and decisively to achieve that goal,” Pence argued.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has opened the door to utilizing private companies to assist in returning to the Moon. With numerous contractors at NASA’s disposal, each has the potential to bring unique value to expedite the Administration’s space-related goals.
While that change is a welcome step forward by NASA’s standards, some private firms are struggling to adapt. In April, SpaceX underwent a “series of engine tests,” but the final test resulted in “an anomaly during static fire tests of its abort engines.” In short, the shuttle exploded. Similarly, Northrop Grumman has also struggled to ensure that the quality of its aerospace products is up to specifications that NASA requires.
Still, Bridenstine remains unperturbed, and argues that Space Force is vital to preserving the infrastructure for scientific exploration. Over the next few months, the space agency must sell this ambitious initiative to a Democrat-controlled House. So far, though, many Democrats have proved intransigent when it comes to the Administration’s space initiatives.
Perhaps most notably, the Air Force’s Launch Service Agreement (LSA), which will create new rockets to help the Trump administration realize its goals, has faced stiff resistance from high-ranking Democrats, mainly due to the program’s aggressive timetable. Democrat Representative Adam Smith, for example, blasted the Air Force’s handling of the program, which is designed to eliminate America’s dependence on the Russian RD-180 rocket by 2022.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson argued that the program “incorporates the best lessons learned over the more than 20-year history of National Security Space Launch and leverages the innovative launch systems that the industry is developing today.” Still, Democrats like Rep. Smith continue to oppose the LSA.
Now, some Democrats are also resisting the Administration’s mission to the moon as well. Following Pence’s announcement, Democrats and the mainstream media ran a firestorm of skepticism, citing the 2024 deadline as merely a move for Trump to bolster his legacy.
The United States, however, is currently in the midst of a space race with China and Russia. Just a few months ago, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the Moon, enhancing its international standing and increasing tension between other spacefaring nations like the United States and Russia.
The arrival of China in the space race is a potential risk to the United States, as it depends heavily on Russia for rocket engines and human access to space. Since suspending its space shuttle program in 2011, NASA currently relies on Russian Soyuz rockets and spacecraft to get NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station at the cost of about $80 million per seat.
During his speech, VP Pence stressed the importance of moving forward with space exploration. “What we need now is urgency,” he proclaimed. “The United States must remain first in space in this century as in the last, not just to propel our economy and secure our nation but, above all, because the rules and values of space, like every great frontier, will be written by those who have the courage to get there first and the commitment to stay.”
According to the Administration, the United States cannot sit by while other nations surpass us technologically. It is a matter of national security.
By space exploration measures, 2024 is right around the corner.
Mona Salama is a political analyst and fashion influencer.