On Thursday morning, Vice President Mike Pence spoke before spaceflight industry executives and government officials in a cavernous exhibition hall at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. America, Pence said, must regain its place as the leader in spaceflight.
At the same time as the vice president was touting a questionable reboot of America’s space program, two Americans were on a spacewalk about 240 miles above the Earth, floating in weightlessness outside of the International Space Station, risking their lives.
NASA astronauts Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei were replacing a piece of equipment outside of the Space Station as Pence conducted the first meeting of the National Space Council, an advisory board of government officials that are tasked with helping President Donald Trump direct America’s space program.
The meeting was something of a PR showcase.
Instead of gathering at the White House to hammer out the finer points of space policy, the council held a grand, open listening session from a stage with the space shuttle Discovery looking on, itself a reminder of America’s spaceflight achievements.
Much of the rhetoric the council used involved hammering home Trump’s well-worn idea that America needs to regain ground as the “leader” in space. To do that, he plans to refocus NASA on a crewed mission to the moon.
“By reviving the National Space Council, President Donald Trump has declared to all of the world: America will lead in space once again,” Pence said during his speech.
Meanwhile, there’s no evidence that the U.S. is lacking in the space leadership department.
It’s true that NASA has needed to buy rides for their astronauts aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. However, that could change in the next couple of years when Boeing and SpaceX are expected to start flying the agency’s astronauts to the station under contract with NASA.
Plus, when you look at the space agency’s impressive fleet of robotic spacecraft gazing at the Earth or other planets in the solar system, no other country comes close to the U.S.
NASA recently sent the Juno mission to Jupiter and the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto, giving us our first glimpses of those worlds from close range. The Curiosity rover is still going strong on Mars, and the Hubble Space Telescope continues to send back incredible views of distant points in our universe.
It’s indicative of the administration’s preconceived notion about the space program as a moribund endeavor that the council met for the first time during a planned spacewalk, one of the most dangerous activities an astronaut can perform in space. One could even argue that this was disrespectful to NASA, and Vande Hei and Bresnik in particular.
Perhaps most problematic of all is that the spacewalk wasn’t even highlighted until about an hour into the council meeting, when Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, referred to the two astronauts working up in space.
“As we sit here today, Mark Vande Hei and Randy Bresnik are doing a spacewalk at the International Space Station. So they’re outside the station above us some 200 and some odd miles above us today,” Lightfoot said.
“And I am confident and excited about the opportunity to bring a plan back to the president that allows future astronauts like that to do the same kind of work further and further into space.”
Listening to Pence, one might get the idea that the U.S. space program has fallen into disrepair, but that’s clearly not the case. I wonder how it would feel to be Bresnik or Vande Hei, to return to the Space Station after nearly 7 hours of physically exhausting and dangerous work just to see their vice president discussing how to repair the poor state of the U.S. space program.
How would it feel to be any NASA employee and see this?
With each administration, NASA seems to change goalposts on the people who work for the agency, switching up desired destinations as different political parties take charge of the Executive Branch.
Under George W. Bush, the agency was aiming to go to the moon and then to Mars. Then, former President Barack Obama set the agency’s sights on an asteroid first, then Mars.
And now, NASA is switching gears yet again, back to the moon as a proving ground for Mars.
This policy whiplash won’t necessarily change a whole lot in the way of technology development, but it isn’t good for morale at the agency. Constantly changing goalposts in space is only good for one thing: Keeping us on the ground.