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Pence discusses plans for moon return at Johnson Space Center

HOUSTON – Vice President Mike Pence promised a return to American dominance in space during a speech Thursday at the Johnson Space Center.

Pence toured the facility before speaking to an audience of NASA workers and astronauts about the country’s plans to return to the moon and eventually put people on Mars.

The vice president said the ending of the shuttle program was a stall in the momentum of America’s space program. He said new programs being championed by the Trump administration will help put the country back on a path of space exploration.

“America will lead mankind to the stars once again,” Pence said.

VIDEO: Vice President Mike Pence speaks at Johnson Space Center

Pence said programs like a launch platform that orbits the moon will eventually lead to Americans landing on Mars.

The vice president also promised an end to the post-space shuttle era program of American astronauts being launched into space on Russian rockets at a cost of about $82 million per seat.

“Soon and very soon, American astronauts will return to space on American rockets launched from American soil,” Pence said. "The United States Department of Space Force will be a reality by the year 2020.”

He told the packed auditorium that now is the time for a specialized force to defend U.S. interests in space.

"Just this week the Pentagon released a report showing China is aggressively weaponizing space. Russia, too, is developing and testing new and dangerous weapons and the technologies to counter America's space capabilities," Pence said.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the space agency is about science and exploration and would not be involved in the space force. But he said it is important to protect our astronauts and hardware in space.

"To the extent that war would extend into space, it would be devastating to NASA. We cannot allow that to happen. Which means we have to have an ability to deter an kind of aggression in space. In other words, any adversary needs to see that challenging the United States in space will not be to their advantage. And if it's not to their advantage, war will never go up there. That's the idea," Bridenstine said.

Thursday’s speech by the vice president comes after he spent Wednesday in Rockport, Texas, to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.

He arrived Wednesday evening in Houston, and later, he surprised a room full of veterans during the fifth annual Honor Houston Heroes ceremony.