Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, far from describing a neglected space program in the United States, highlighted her company’s meteoric rise in recent years, with 13 launches in 2017. “In short, there is a renaissance underway right now in space,” she said.
The focus on the moon marks an expected turn from the priorities of the Obama administration, which had downplayed the moon and instructed NASA to instead aim for an asteroid and then Mars. The approach is more of a return to the path described by President George W. Bush in 2004 and his father, President George H.W. Bush, 15 years earlier.
Both times, the initiatives petered out. Since the last Apollo moon landing in 1972, no astronauts have traveled beyond low-Earth orbit.
Mr. Pence suggested that private industry might play a larger role in a moon mission this time. “To fully unlock the mysteries of space, President Trump recognizes that we must look beyond the halls of government for input and guidance,” he said.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion article published on Wednesday where Mr. Pence addressed similar themes, he made zero mention of NASA.
What will change in practice under the Trump administration is unclear. Although the Obama administration downplayed sending NASA astronauts to the moon, it did support commercial start-ups seeking to send robotic landers there, and Mr. Pence said that the longer-term goal of getting astronauts to Mars remains.
Philip Larsen, a former White House space adviser in the Obama administration and now an assistant dean at the University of Colorado engineering school disagreed with Mr. Pence’s criticism. He pointed to SpaceX’s success and billions of dollars of private investment in space ventures in recent years.
“That type of activity is what the Obama administration worked to promote and create and foment a whole new industry,” said Mr. Larsen, who did not attend the meeting.
He said it was also too early to tell whether the Trump administration’s space efforts would succeed. “It was just very interesting to do this type of process without a NASA administrator or a science adviser in the White House,” he said. “Until they produce a plan, which it looks like they’re moving toward, this is mostly theater and produces a little bit of confusion, I think. I still remain optimistic.”
The Senate has not yet held confirmation hearings for Jim Bridenstine, an Oklahoma congressman nominated last month to be the next NASA administrator. President Trump has yet to name a science adviser.
John Logsdon, a former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, was more positive, noting that administration had chosen to hold its first meeting publicly at a high-profile venue to draw more attention.
“Words are the first step to action,” he said.
Are the words different this time?
Dr. Logsdon paused. “No,” he replied wistfully.