The inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States is a remarkable event in more ways than one, but for the American space program, it could prove to be hinge-pin in history.
At this point, there is no way to know what policy directions the Trump White House may provide to NASA, and that is what makes the moment so very interesting. Currently, the agency is under the helm of Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who previously served as Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Under normal circumstances, one might easily conclude that an incoming Republican president, enjoying the backing of a House and Senate under similar control, with a Senator from Alabama on-course to become the Attorney General, would be joyous news for legacy aerospace contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin et al, and a continuation of the status quo, represented by the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft.
Complicating the issue more than just a little however, is the fact that the outgoing Obama Administration, while giving in to Congressional pressure to fund SLS when it did not want to, also set it up for failure by pointing the rocket towards Mars, and what amounts to a financially improbable goal strung out along a politically disastrous 30 year time-frame.
Conventional wisdom suggests that NASA will once more be directed towards the Moon, as it was during the Bush Administration’s Project Constellation. If that is the case, it will be powered by a booster which is Constellation in everything but name, lofting a spacecraft, Orion, whose name hasn’t changed at all.
Yet other things have changed in the last eight years, particularly in both NewSpace, where SpaceX has now demonstrated the feasibility of recovering rocket stages, as in the overall broader category of commercial space, where even legacy contractors such as United Launch Alliance and Orbital-ATK have proven they can deliver the goods (literally) much more effectively than through traditional government procurement.
Mr. Trump is clearly something of a wildcard, having elected to publicly spank both Boeing and Lockheed Martin for high prices in key programs, calling in their CEO’s for meetings of the ‘Come to Jesus’ variety during his tenure as President-elect. He went as far into specifics as letting Lockheed Martin know he intended to open bidding for additional FA-18 Super Hornet aircraft to balance out the much more expensive Lockheed Martin F-35, while getting price concessions for both. Should a now President Trump, who referenced the “mysteries of space” during his Inaugural Address, turn a similar scrutiny towards NASA and SLS/Orion, the results could be interesting for all involved. With Elon Musk having now visited Trump Tower twice during the transition, and again on the new President’s first Monday in office, barely one week after SpaceX returned to flight with a visually compelling Pacific Ocean landing, it is hard to imagine that whenever President Trump does get around to naming a new NASA Administrator and setting some direction for America’s space agency, the opportunity for lowering the costs of exploration will somehow escape his attention.
But what of the direction? The recent passing of the last Apollo astronaut to walk on the Moon, Gene Cernan, underscored what many perceive as a stagnation in America’s spirit of exploration, an impression which begs to be remedied by the campaign theme of making America “Great Again.” From a practical standpoint, if demonstrable progress on a short time-frame is the goal, then the Moon is the obvious choice.
At the same time however, absent a major infusion of tax dollars, accompanied by a Kennedy-level imperative to get going, a wholesale change from NASA’s rocket of record could set the space agency even further back, at least temporarily, even if it established the foundation for long-term stability and success. After all, SpaceX introduced the Falcon Heavy in 2011, and six years later it has yet to fly.
The question then, is whether or not there is a way to combine the rock steady reliability of the newly cost-effective United Launch Alliance Atlas-V, the stunning progress SpaceX has made thus far with Falcon 9, and stands poised to extend with Falcon Heavy, with the looming reality of a Space Launch System which will be ready for its maiden flight as early as next year into a lunar program which does not run off the same fiscal rails as its predecessor, Project Constellation?
The not-so-simple answer is yes; by permanently separating the Orion spacecraft from the SLS booster and putting it on the same shelf as the J2-X upper stage engine on which NASA spent over $1 billion only to mothball. Either the SpaceX Dragon or the Boeing Starliner, both of which are much lighter than Orion, are adequate to serve as a transfer craft to lunar orbit, much as was proposed by New Horizon’s Principle Investigator Alan Stern through the Golden Spike Company mission proposal in 2012. The only real difference is the that relieved of the mass of Orion and an escape system which alone weighs more than the SpaceX Dragon, SLS could serve for at least a decade as very capable large cargo lifter, and perhaps beyond. If it is eventually trumped by both SpaceX and Blue Origin, then it will be obvious to all, and NASA can get on with the serious business of building what private industry alone cannot, nuclear propulsion and power generation for exploring the deep reaches of the solar system.
Following such a scenario would not only return NASA to the two-launch concept and the separation of cargo and crew as recommended by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, it would also free the agency to open up competition for the missing element of a new sprint to the Moon, the lander, almost immediately. While perhaps not an ideal plan from a true NewSpace perspective, it would placate 2/3 of the SLS constituency, while still leaving Lockheed Martin the opportunity to compete for the lander segment in a program conducted along the lines of COTS, CRS and Commercial Crew.
Far from being marooned on the Moon for decades to come, mired there by a politically entrenched program as the Shuttle quickly became for low Earth orbit, NASA could stay for a short time, or for a long one, with that decision relegated to future administrations, informed by a transportation infrastructure marked by steadily decreasing costs and whatever progress SpaceX has made in its own plans to reach Mars.