Recently, it seemed as though support for space exploration, both human and robotic, was reaching a crescendo.
Last year’s Pluto flyby, a new mission to Jupiter, and a planned mission to the icy moon Europa showcased NASA’s commitment to exploring deep space, while major announcements from President Obama and Elon Musk made it sound like efforts to send humans to Mars might finally escape the realm of science fiction. All this activity fueled an optimistic view that exploring space may once again be a national priority.
But under President-elect Donald Trump, might all of that energy come to a hood-buckling, airbag-deploying halt?
There’s a good chance the answer is no.
“Space is the frontier on which American aspiration can become humankind’s inspiration,” Trump advisors Robert Walker, a former U.S. congressman, and Peter Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in an op-ed published at SpaceNews in October. “The destiny of a free people lies in the stars. Donald Trump agrees.”
While those ideas are strongly stated, it’s unclear whether they will survive Trump’s transition into power, says space policy expert John Logsdon. “The public Trump statement has endorsed space exploration … but it could go either way.”
Right now, landing people on Mars in the next several decades is NASA’s major focus in crewed spaceflight, and it seems like that goal may survive—with the caveat that sending humans to the moon may become a nearer-term priority.
“I think that there will be momentum building to reinsert missions to the moon as part of the human exploration plan, while maintaining Mars as the horizon goal,” Logsdon says.
An Emphasis on Deep Space ...
Truthfully, we know little about how Trump might approach space policy. His public statements have mostly been space-positive (except for that time he told a 10-year-old that fixing potholes was a more pressing problem than anything NASA-related).
Two op-eds by advisors Walker and Navarro, as well as Trump’s own rhetoric, suggest space exploration will not fare badly during his administration. It seems likely that the Trump vision includes a focus on increased partnership with commercial enterprises rather than governmental development, but an emphasis on humans pushing farther into the solar system could accelerate the development of relevant technologies across all sectors.
“Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal,” wrote Walker and Navarro.
It’s a promising concept, says the Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier. “I hope we’ll be talking about planetary science and robotic exploration,” he says. “But I think it’s so hard to know. We’re working with such little information.”
There are potential downsides to Trump’s vision, as well. He and his advisors have been clear about their intentions to aggressively streamline the NASA bureaucracy and eliminate duplicative projects, a move that could lead to some major reorganizations within the agency.
One casualty of that approach could be the heavy-lift Space Launch System and crewed Orion capsule, a NASA project that would rocket humans into space within the next decade and eventually send people to Mars.
“It makes little sense for numerous launch vehicles to be developed at taxpayer cost, all with essentially the same technology and payload capacity,” wrote Walker and Navarro. “Coordinated policy would end such duplication of effort and quickly determine where there are private sector solutions that do not necessarily require government investment.”
At the Expense of Earth Science?
Another casualty—this one seemingly more assured than the demise of SLS—is NASA’s earth sciences program, which employs a fleet of satellites to study and understand our home planet. In addition, Trump may try to reduce NASA’s role in ferrying goods to and from the Earth-orbiting International Space Station.
“I will free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low-Earth orbit activity,” Trump said during an October campaign stop in Sanford, Florida.
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Walker and Navarro, who wrote that NASA “has been largely reduced to a logistics agency concentrating on space station resupply and politically correct environmental monitoring.” Instead, they suggest that NASA’s primary focus ought to be free from what they seem to consider the distracting endeavor of understanding the planet we live on.
This means the Trump team might try to shift Earth-observing activities from NASA to another agency, probably the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which introduces a whole host of funding quagmires, because there’s no expectation that NOAA’s budget will expand enough to absorb the shift.
To say scientists aren’t optimistic about the potential impact on earth science programs is no overstatement, and in a time when climate change threatens this planet in a very real way, that information is more valuable than ever.
“Earth science helps save lives. It also helps grow companies and creates an awareness of environmental challenges that affect our lives today and tomorrow,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said during a briefing on November 10.
Luckily, Dreier says, Trump won’t be inheriting oppressive cost overruns like George W. Bush did with the International Space Station, or President Obama did when he cancelled Bush’s Constellation program, which would have sent humans back to the moon. “That’s a pretty good position to be in,” Dreier says.
Hopes for Minimal Disruption
Other information from those reports and from the Trump transition team hint at a potential focus on returning humans to the lunar surface (which is not a current NASA priority) while canceling the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which has been a controversial stepping stone on the human journey to Mars.
The Trump team has also announced its intent to reinstate the George H.W. Bush-era National Space Council, which would be chaired by incoming Vice President Mike Pence.
Founded in 1958 as the National Aeronautics and Space Council, and subsequently disbanded and revived several times, the panel arose as a way to comprehensively coordinate all aspects of U.S. space activities, whether civilian or military. If it’s organized as before, the council will include the heads of agencies involved in space-related endeavors, and it should work in tandem with Congress to set national goals and priorities.
“The idea is that so many agencies are involved in the space program, that there needs to be White House coordination of what they’re up to,” Logsdon says.
Of course, no major changes in NASA programs will happen easily without congressional approval. And given that most prominent lawmakers involved in space policy have retained their seats in Congress, it’s possible that anything truly distasteful—for example, shuttering SLS, which is strongly supported by congressional Republicans—could run into roadblocks.
But overall, with the notable exception of NASA’s earth science program, “this may be the first time in decades where you don’t see a whole dramatic shift in the agency’s focus,” Dreier says. “Minimal disruption is what we’re hoping for.”