As the head of the recently established National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence is the most important person in the United States when it comes to determining space policy. In this role, Pence oversees the development of US military, civil, and commercial space efforts.
The Trump administration has come into office at a time when new space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are challenging dominant aerospace industry companies, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. A key difference between the new competitors is that they're willing to invest more of their own funds into developing launch vehicles—both SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and Blue Origin's New Glenn rockets have been substantially funded by private money. Successful flights by these vehicles may raise questions about why the federal government should spend billions of taxpayer dollars on traditional contractors for other heavy lift vehicles.
Early next month, the first of these privately funded rockets, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, should finally make a test flight from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. If successful, the Falcon Heavy, with a lifting capacity of 54 tons to low-Earth orbit, will become twice as powerful as any rocket in operation today.
So far, the Trump administration has played it both ways—acknowledging the importance of the newly emerging private space sector but also offering praise for NASA's large and costly Space Launch System. However, sources have indicated that Pence's office is closely watching the private companies and success here could have policy implications.
Chief of staff
That appeared to be confirmed Saturday in a tweet by Nick Ayers, chief of staff for Pence. Referring directly to the upcoming Falcon Heavy launch, Ayers tweeted, "Major (positive) ramifications for US space industry if this goes according to plan." Here, a key Pence confidant seems to be saying that the Falcon Heavy could prove a game changer by offering the United States a new launch capability at low cost to taxpayers.
By contrast, NASA has been more muted about the upcoming launch. Earlier this year, Ars sought an interview with NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot. He declined, citing a busy schedule, but his office agreed to answer questions in writing. We asked whether Lightfoot would be watching and what success would mean to the aerospace industry.
Lightfoot's office responded, via email, as follows:
NASA celebrates the success of its industry partners as a testament to the hard work the agency puts into sharing technology and innovation with American companies. To achieve the goal to extend humanity's presence in the Solar System will require the best research, technologies, capabilities, and contributions from the US private sector and international partners.
A former White House official under President Obama, Phil Larson, said that Ayers paying attention to the launch and publicly acknowledging the achievement of SpaceX bodes well for the emergence of the private space industry.
"It's good to see this from the Trump administration's leadership," Larson told Ars. "Next step would be to commit to supporting US commercial space, including not prematurely ending our foothold in low-Earth orbit that supports critical science and all of US industry."
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