Vice President Mike Pence, chairing a revived National Space Council, said Thursday the United States will once again send astronauts to the moon, using Earth’s satellite as a critical stepping stone for eventual flights to Mars, and vowing to beef up national security space assets to counter rapidly escalating threats from adversaries.

In the human spaceflight arena, Pence said the Trump administration’s space policy calls for sending missions to the moon to test new technologies, to establish infrastructure far beyond low-Earth orbit and to serve as a staging base on the surface, or a gateway in lunar orbit, for robotic and human flights to Mars.

Experts told the panel NASA could return astronauts to the moon within five years using the agency’s huge Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule — and possibly a Saturn 5-class rocket envisioned by SpaceX — to lay the groundwork for landings on the lunar surface or developing an orbital outpost.

“The president has charged us with laying the foundation for America to maintain a constant commercial human presence in low-Earth orbit,” Pence said, standing in front of the space shuttle Discovery at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

“From there, we will turn our attention back toward our celestial neighbors. 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.”

He said the moon would serve “as a stepping stone, a training ground, a venue to strengthen our commercial and international partnerships as we refocus America’s space program toward human space exploration. And under President Trump, this council will spur the development of space technology to protect America’s national security.”

Pence said Russia and China are pursuing “a full range of anti-satellite technology to reduce U.S. military effectiveness, and they’re increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine.”

“Our adversaries are aggressively developing jamming, hacking and other technologies intended to cripple military surveillance, navigation, communications systems,” he said. “In the face of these actions, Americans must be as dominant in space as we are here on Earth.”

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin agreed, telling the panel the nation needs to quickly improve its ability to identify realtime threats in space, to protect current national security space assets and to clearly state a policy that considers attacks on critical space infrastructure an attack on the United States.

“Our space infrastructure has been, is being and will continue to be targeted by those who seek to alter the global order while blunting our opposition to that,” Griffin told the space council. “Our adversaries can already, and are increasing, their ability to project their power into space.

“While we must develop defenses against such actions, defense by itself will always be insufficient,” he said. “Defense must succeed every time, the adversary must succeed only once. Accordingly, we must develop our own capabilities to project power in space. We must be able to hold adversaries’ space capabilities at risk even as they seek to do so to ours.”

In an op-ed piece in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Pence said the long-dormant National Space Council, re-activated by President Trump, will establish a “Users’ Advisory Group” drawn from the private sector to leverage new technologies and innovation.

Pence was joined Thursday by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot and other senior administration officials including Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Mulvaney and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

Three panels of experts were invited to discuss civil space policy, commercial space and national security.

Representing civil space were Lockheed Martin President and CEO Marilyn Hewson, Dennis Muilenburg, president and CEO of Boeing, and David Thompson, president and CEO of Orbital ATK. All three agreed Americans could return to the moon within five years given funding and political support. And all three said steady, long-term funding was essential.

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SOURCE: CBS News, William Harwood