U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to maintain U.S. dominance in space as China, Russia, and other countries make advances in the race to explore the moon, Mars, and other planets.
"America will always be the first in space," Trump said in a speech at the White House on June 18, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence and the National Space Council advisory body he created last year.
"My administration is reclaiming America's heritage as the world's greatest space-faring nation," Trump said. "We don't want China and Russia and other countries leading us. We've always led."
While the United States has dominated in space since the 1969 moon landing, China recently has made significant advances, while Russia -- which at the beginning of the Space Age in the 1950s had the world's most advanced space progam -- recently has mostly stagnated amid budget cutbacks.
Trump said he wants to stay ahead of strategic competitors like China and Russia, but he said he wants to nurture the space ambitions of private billionaires like Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and the Blue Origin space company.
"Rich guys seem to like rockets," Trump said. "As long as it's an American rich person, that's good, they can beat us," he said. "The essence of the American character is to explore new horizons and to tame new frontiers."
In his latest directive on space matters, Trump called for the Pentagon to create a new American "Space Force" that would become the sixth branch of the U.S. military -- a proposal that requires congressional approval and is opposed by some legislators.
"We are going to have the Air Force, and we are going to have the Space Force, separate but equal," Trump said.
The U.S. armed forces currently consists of the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard.
"When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space, we must have American dominance in space," Trump said.
The Pentagon, where some high-level officials have voiced skepticism about establishing a separate Space Force, said it will work with Congress on Trump's directive.
"Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.
Since his election, Trump has repeatedly vowed to send people back to the moon for the first time since 1972 -- this time, he says, as a preparatory step for the first human missions to Mars in coming decades.
He has also promised fewer regulations to make it easier for private industry to explore and colonize space.
The U.S. commercial space sector already is booming under NASA policies that have shifted the role of the government away from being the sole builder and launcher of rockets for decades since the 1960s.
The U.S. space agency now mostly sees its role as working with private space companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK to develop new space capabilities and carry them out.
SpaceX, which NASA currently pays to take cargo to the International Space Station, and Boeing are expected to start regular astronaut missions to low-Earth orbit next year.
Since 2012, when NASA's space shuttle program ended, the U.S. space agency has also relied on Russian Soyuz spaceships to transport astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.
Trump has said he wants to privatize the space station after 2025 -- another idea viewed as controversial in Congress -- so Washington can spend more on NASA's plans to return astronauts to the Moon and eventually to Mars.
"This time, we will establish a long-term presence" on the moon, Trump said on June 18.
NASA is working with private industry on its most powerful rocket ever, called the Space Launch System, to send astronauts and their equipment to the moon and one day, Mars. It also wants to build a lunar outpost.
While seeking to create a new Space Force at the Pentagon, Trump also signed a directive on June 18 handing the Pentagon's current authority to regulate private satellites to the Commerce Department.
He also issued a directive on space-traffic management, which is aimed at boosting the monitoring of objects in orbit so as to avoid collisions and debris strikes.
A statement released by the White House said the move "seeks to reduce the growing threat of orbital debris to the common interest of all nations."
The Defense Department says there are 20,000 pieces of space debris and 800 operational U.S. satellites circling the Earth, a number that grows every year.