Vice President Mike Pence touted big plans for an American-led lunar landing by 2024 during a Thursday appearance at the NASA Ames Research Center, where he lauded the ingenuity of local engineers and researchers behind the effort.
Speaking to more than 100 NASA employees on Nov. 14, Pence heaped praise on current and former Ames staff that have championed modern aviation, space exploration and cutting-edge computing for 80 years. With renewed goals to conduct manned missions to the moon and a long-term goal of reaching Mars in the coming decades, Pence said NASA Ames will again be the center of innovation.
"We're about to make even more history, and it will pass right through NASA Ames," Pence said.
Casting a shadow over the visit, however, was recent news of a mass shooting at a Southern California school earlier that morning. A boy a male student shot and killed two students, a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, and injured three others at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita. Pence led his planned remarks by extending condolences to the families affected, and said President Donald Trump asked him to convey his deepest sympathies for the families and the victims and the entire Santa Clarita community.
"The hearts of every American are with you today, our prayers are with you, and our prayers are with all the doctors and nurses and hospital staff," he said.
Pence commended the swift response of local law enforcement and school officials who "undoubtedly saved lives." The Trump administration, he said, will fight to prevent future mass shootings, but did not specify how.
"This president and this administration will remain resolved to bring the scourge of mass shootings to an end. And we will not rest or relent until we end this evil in our time and make our schools and communities safe again."
Trump floated the idea of supporting more aggressive background checks and "red flag" laws in the summer, but recent media reports indicate proposed gun-control legislation has not been a priority for the president.
Pence addressed NASA employees in front of the research center's Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS), a one-of-a-kind facility that can prepare astronauts to land on lunar – and eventually martian – surfaces. The VMS acts as a sort of flight simulator designed to mirror the feel, the controls and the visual cues needed to pilot a lander in an environment unlike Earth.
Though the VMS is primarily for refining the design of aircraft and spacecrafts, it also serves a valuable secondary role as a training simulator for pilots.
Pence's comments largely centered on the administration's renewed focus on manned missions to the moon. In 2017, Trump signed a directive prioritizing missions that will put the first woman, and the next man, on the moon. The directive also places a focus on "long-term exploration and utilization" ultimately culminating in a manned mission to Mars. At the time, Pence announced that he would be heading the National Space Council and act as a link between NASA and the White House.
Though the initial target was to have astronauts land on the moon in 2028, Pence announced during a National Space Council meeting last March that the new, accelerated timeline now calls for a touchdown by 2024. If reached, it would be the first time the United States has conducted a lunar landing in 52 years.
Pence told NASA employees on Thursday that things are already moving fast: In just a matter of months, strong efforts have been made to get America "back" in the business of launching its own spacecrafts, which he described as a languishing priority for the country.
"Before spring arrives next year, we're going to send American astronauts on American rockets from American soil," he said, adding that NASA would no longer have to hitch a ride with the Russians on the return trip.
Pence's visit to Moffett Field was the last leg of a two-day trip to California, which began with two events in support of Trump. He participated in a "Trump Victory" lunch in Huntington Beach Wednesday followed by a reception in Monterey. Both events were closed to the media.
In past comments to the media and on Twitter, Trump has signaled that he is eager to send astronauts to Mars and vented in June that the first leg of the mission – returning to the moon – wasn't breaking any new ground. A crewed flight to Mars is loosely planned to happen sometime in the 2030s.
Protesters stage die-in
While NASA employees at the event largely supported Pence's comments, often punctuated with cheering and applause, not everyone was thrilled with the vice president's visit. Several groups staged demonstrations outside of the research facility.
The protests included a presence from the groups Vigil for Democracy, calling out the vice president's opposition to abortion and LGBT rights, Resistance SF and Refuse Fascism Bay Area. The local chapter of the Raging Grannies traded their usual colorful garb for somber black and acted as mourners at a "die-in" of protesters dressed in white clothing stained with fake blood on their crotches, representing victims of back-alley abortions.
"They want to send women back into the Dark Ages," said Vara Ramakrishnan of Los Altos, a member of the group Vigil for Democracy, adding that Pence's record on women's and LGBT issues as governor of Indiana "speaks volumes."
The protesters referred to a bill signed by Pence while he was governor of Indiana requiring women to hold burial services for fetuses.
Nancy Martin of Palo Alto, a member of Raging Grannies, said that as a pro-choice advocate and Planned Parenthood volunteer, she opposed Pence's visit to the Bay Area.
"I'm here in solidarity with women, and also trans women, who are endangered by the sexist policies of Pence and Trump," said Alan Marling, a protester participating in the "die-in".
The "die-in" protesters lay down in crosswalks around Ames' main entrance, and marched across Moffett Boulevard with linked arms, followed by "Handmaids" dressed in red capes and white bonnets, followed by the Raging Grannies. The groups say they wanted to draw attention to the vice president's "misogyny and homophobia," and quoted comments made by Pence in opposition to Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, and his belief that homosexuality is a choice.
A group of eight protesters made it about one block onto the NASA Ames campus before security and police escorted them out.
Future space missions
Plans for a crewed landing on the moon has been dubbed the Artemis program, an American-led effort that has picked up support from several international partners since it was first announced. NASA is joined by the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency and the Australian Space Agency.
Pence also emphasized the importance of "unleashing" the private sector and fostering strong public-private partnerships – something Ames employees have been quick to embrace.
The program includes several ambitious and expensive components, notably the Lunar Orbital Platform (better known as the Lunar Gateway), a space station that would orbit around the moon and act as a "jumping-off" point for robots and astronauts to land on the moon's surface.
In the near term, NASA officials announced last month that it is developing a robot rover that could be sent to the moon to observe and sample frozen water concentrated at the south pole. The rover is equipped with a meter-long drill to take samples, which will assist researchers in creating a global map of resources on the moon that could be essential for lengthy stays on the lunar surface.
Throughout the address, Pence repeatedly described Trump's commitment to NASA as unwavering, noting that Trump signed into law the "largest budget ever" for the agency in the modern era. The administration also asked Congress to approve adding $1.6 billion to the budget, bringing the total planned spending to over $22.6 billion in fiscal year 2020.
And while much of the technology and equipment needed to carry out the Artemis program remains under development and almost like science fiction, Pence said the research center has a reputation of overcoming the odds.
"You made science fiction into science fact at NASA Ames, and you made history," he said.
Bay City News Service contributed to this report.