WASHINGTON — Seated before the grounded space shuttle Discovery, a constellation of Trump administration officials used soaring rhetoric to vow to send Americans back to the moon and then on to Mars.
After voicing celestial aspirations, top officials moved to what National Intelligence Director Dan Coats called "a dark side" to space policy. Coats, Vice President Mike Pence, other top officials and outside space experts said the United States has to counter and perhaps match potential enemies' ability to target U.S. satellites.
Pence, several cabinet secretaries and White House advisers gathered in the shadow of the shuttle at the Smithsonian Institution's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center to chart a new path in space — government, commercial and military — for the country. It was the first meeting of the National Space Council, revived after it was disbanded in 1993.
But details, such as how much the new ideas will cost, were scant and outside experts said they've heard grandiose plans before only to see them fizzle instead of launch.
"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," Pence said.
CHANTILLY, VA - OCTOBER 05: The Space Shuttle Discovery is the back drop as Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council on 'Leading the Next Frontier' at the National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udv
Space industry leaders say they and NASA are building the spaceships to get there. And they're promising that in five years, astronauts could be working around the moon.
David Thompson, president of the space company Orbital ATK, said NASA's Orion capsule and super-sized Space Launch System rocket should be ready in a couple years, so flying around the moon and even making a lunar orbiting outpost is within reach. But he said a lunar landing would take longer. Blue Origin rocket company chief executive officer Bob Smith said his firm could have a lunar lander program ready within five years.
Past presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and to a lesser extent Barack Obama have proposed spectacular missions to the moon or Mars or both, only to have funding trouble keep them from coming true, said space expert Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation. He wasn't part of the council meeting.
"Is it going to happen? Who knows? I feel like I've been disappointed so many times I refuse to get excited," said Roger Launius, a longtime space historian.
And Gwynn Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said her company next year will launch astronauts to the International Space Station, the first American launch of people since 2011. After the 2003 space shuttle Columbia broke apart on descent, then-president George W. Bush announced the phasing out of the space shuttle program. Eventually, NASA started building new multibillion dollar ships, the Orion capsule and the SLS mega-rocket.
Pence several times bemoaned a U.S. space program that had fallen behind, asking space executives what they thought.
"America is out-innovating the world in space launch," Shotwell said, noting that her company had launched 13 rockets this year, more than any other nation.
After talking about how "we will blaze new trails into that great frontier" Pence turned the discussion to the dangers of space and how much of the U.S. intelligence system and day-to-day life are dependent on commercial satellites operating safely. And he and others outlined threats to those satellites from potential enemies that could cripple American security and daily life.
Experts worried that satellites could be destroyed and debris in orbit could ruin others.
Pence asked if the U.S. should "weaponize" space.
"The choice whether or not to weaponize space is not one that we can make. We can only decide to match and raise our adversaries who are already weaponizing space," former NASA chief Michael Griffin said. "That horse is already out of the barn."
White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the country needs to "deter and when necessary defeat adversaries' counter-space efforts... We may not start it but we will finish it."