President Donald Trump had much of Washington scratching its head recently when he seemed to suggest the United States was going to add a branch of the military for space. It's not the first time Trump has raised the idea of a "Space Force," and nobody really knows if he's serious or not.
But Trump's commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, is dead serious about the United States developing a role for itself in the cosmos. At a Washington cocktail party last week thrown in honor of the Qatari ambassador, Ross called for the United States to aim for a dominant role in space when it comes to security, commerce and, yes, even colonizing Mars.
"Space is the new frontier for the country and for the world," Ross told the dinner guests at a private mansion in Washington's Kalorama neighborhood April 25.
He began by saying travel to Mars is coming, but in order to get there with any large payload, "for colonization or mining or anything else," the dark side of the moon would be the staging ground. The moon has low gravity for easy launch and the dark side has ice, which could be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel, he explained.
"I'm intrigued with the notion that the man in the moon is pretty soon going to be a gas station attendant," Ross said.
He also predicted a huge increase in asteroid mining, which Ross explained is quite different than the terrestrial mining he had experience with in the past. All the very valuable minerals - gold, silver, platinum, rare minerals - are right on the surface, said Ross.
"Somebody just has to scoop them off. You just have to get there. That's going to be a big activity," he said.
Ross noted that his "former partner" Richard Branson had already convinced hundreds of people to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars each for short tourist trips into space. Ross said that the Commerce Department is already assuming more responsibility on that front.
Ross said that his department is also taking over much of the oversight responsibility for space situational awareness and space traffic management for private industry. His goal is to "make the United States the flag of choice for space launches and space activities," he said.
Ross is a member of the National Space Council, which is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. In February, Pence delegated to the Commerce Department responsibility for overseeing increased government cooperation with the commercial space industry and easing related regulations. Pence said last month he will soon deliver a plan to deal with space junk.
When Trump signed the executive order re-establishing the National Space Council last year, he famously said, "This is infinity here. It could be infinity. We don't really don't know. But it could be. It has to be something - but it could be infinity, right?"
At the cocktail party, Ross agreed about the limitless potential of space exploration but described the challenges there in more specific terms. He said operating in space will be enormously costly and that our interests in space are enormously vulnerable.
We are going to see amazing things in space much sooner than we thought possible, he said. "It's going to be the most determinative and the most exciting new development . . . and space is going to be a very big battleground."
Ross noted at the time how odd it was to talk about space at a Washington cocktail party. On Tuesday, I asked him why did it. He answered, through a spokesperson, "Because people in the media think the Cabinet is in outer space."