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VP Mike Pence talks up property rights as he opens international space conference

Alan Boyle
Vice President Mike Pence addresses the opening session of the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. (NASA via YouTube)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Vice President Mike Pence recapped the Trump administration’s plans to put astronauts on the lunar surface and promote space commerce today, with an added twist: emphasis on private property rights relating to space resources.

Pence, who chairs the White House’s National Space Council, also played up international space cooperation during his official welcome address to the International Astronautical Congress, meeting this week here in Washington.

More than 6,000 attendees have registered for the event, and many of them stood in long lines to go through the security checks for today’s opening ceremony.

Pence’s main theme focused on NASA’s Artemis program to send “the first woman and the next man” to the moon by 2024, and then move on to Mars. “We are well on our way to making NASA’s ‘moon to Mars’ mission a reality,” Pence said.

He gave a shout-out to astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, who took on the first all-female spacewalk last week at the International Space Station. Pence jokingly referred to the event as the “first un-manned spacewalk,” following up on a similar quip that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine used in his introduction.

And he touted Japan’s decision last week to join NASA in the Artemis moon program, adding that European nations also discussing the role that they’ll play.

“To be clear, our vision is to be the leader amongst freedom-loving nations on the adventure into the great unknown,” Pence said.

He made clear that the United States would continue to observe international agreements on space activities — presumably including the Outer Space Treaty, which rules out claims of sovereignty on the moon or other celestial bodies. But Pence also said America’s partners should respect private ownership in space, which is a less settled legal frontier.

“As more nations gain the ability to explore space and develop places beyond Earth’s atmosphere, we must also ensure that we carry into space our shared commitment to freedom, the rule of law and private property,” he said. “The long-term exploration and development of the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies will require the use of resources found in outer space, including water and minerals. And so we must encourage the responsible commercial use of these resources.”

Pence hinted that the United States will be developing new policies relating to the use of space resources.

“We will use all available legal and diplomatic means to create a stable and orderly space environment that drives opportunity, creates prosperity and ensures our security on Earth into the vast expanse of space,” he said.

On the subject of security, Pence took note of the Trump administration’s push to create a Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces.

“Soon it will be a reality, and the Space Force will be a vanguard to defending our nation, defending our freedom, and defending the rights of all freedom-loving nations in the vast expanse of space,” he said.

Commercial ventures are devoting increasing attention to space resources — a category that includes potentially valuable metals and minerals, as well as water on the moon and on asteroids that can be converted to rocket fuel and supplies for human settlement.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is among the companies that are already receiving NASA funding to develop technologies for processing space resources. On Tuesday, Bezos is due to pick up the International Astronautical Congress’ first-ever Excellence in Industry Award on Blue Origin’s behalf.

Speaking of awards, Pence paid tribute during his talk to the crew of Apollo 11, recipients of this year’s World Space Award at the IAC.

After Pence spoke, the award was accepted by Mark Armstrong, the son of mission commander Neil Armstrong; Luke Newell, a grandson of command module pilot Michael Collins; and Buzz Aldrin. “We can rest assured that I will be devoting so much of my energy to improving the Artemis program,” the 89-year-old Aldrin quipped as he accepted the award.

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