Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S. presidential election has raised a number of interesting questions regarding what substantive changes, if any, may be coming in the way of American space policy. Whereas Hillary Clinton’s transition team was reportedly prepared to show up at NASA headquarters when the doors opened the morning after her victory, Trump’s team is currently playing catch-up, as a substantial number of those who might have been working on a transition, were instead diverted to actually winning the election.
With the contest now decided, the clearest insight into President-elect Trump’s NASA policy is likely that offered by former Congressman Robert S Walker, a long time space advocate who was somewhat belatedly asked to advise the campaign on space policy, a move which produced a two part op/ed in Space News, co-authored with Peter Navarro, in the weeks before the election.
There are two critical takeaways from the piece, one of which sets the tone in the second paragraph:
“A 21st century space policy requires a bold combination of public missions, commercial solutions and the agility to address real threats and real opportunities. To craft such a policy, government must recognize that space is no longer the province of governments alone.”
That emphasis suggests that the substantial progress made by commercial space in the last 8 years, thanks in large part to policies which originated in the Bush administration but found strong support in the Obama administration, is both understood and appreciated. In other words, the revolution will continue.
What may change however, is the focus on Mars to the exclusion of everything else as the long term object of NASA’s human exploration program. Interestingly, Walker and Navarro suggest a Trump policy would offer a much broader approach, saying “Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.”
What makes it interesting is the fact that by increasing the scope to the entire solar system, the one body which is accessible in the very near term, the Moon, is brought back into the fold.
Walker was a member of President George Bush’s Aldridge Commission, the committee which was convened to give substance and direction to President’s post-Columbia accident call for NASA to retire the Space Shuttle and get on with the serious business of exploring the Moon and then going on to Mars.
The result, Project Constellation, ended up straying quite a bit from what was envisioned in the Aldridge Commission Report, and by the time Barack Obama was preparing to take the oath of office, the program was in deep trouble, beset by rising costs and nagging technological problems. Constellation was ultimately cancelled following the report of yet another commission, this one headed by aerospace industry veteran Norm Augustine.
What remained however, was a strong commitment to commercial spaceflight to service the International Space Station, which is now enjoying widespread success despite some stumbles along the way. While the lifespan and/or management of the Station may soon come under serious scrutiny, particularly if NASA is directed to look back towards the Moon, it seems the lesson has been learned. Any future program needs to lean heavily on the commercial sector.
The odds that program will include lunar return may be stronger than some realize. Interviewed in Space News, Walker said “I can’t speak for the campaign or the transition team, but I will say personally I think going to the moon as a part of an extended presence in space is vital.”
The “Journey to Mars” notwithstanding, that sentiment may find quite a bit of company in the halls of Congress as well as in NASA. Whether or not a candidate who told a child that America needed to fix the potholes before it worried to much about space is going to transform into a President willing to give strong a endorsement to going back to the Moon remains to be seen, but there is this.
In 2018, NASA’s Space Launch System will be ready to make its first flight. It still lacks a completed crew capsule and a usable upper stage. More importantly however, it also lacks a credible destination. But as far as imagery goes, it is going to be hard to beat. Is it really that big a stretch to conclude that the man who wants to “Make America Great Again” will not elect to seize upon such an obvious symbol of national achievement, and point it in the one direction which would tell the world in no uncertain terms that we are back in a big way?
This time, with the active participation of commercial sector, it could happen, as Trump might say “Bigly.”