NASA’s scientific mission doesn’t make the US space agency immune to the politics of presidential transitions. After all, there are billions of dollars of programs and funding at stake.
Witness the hand-off in 2008 from US president George W. Bush to Barack Obama: The future of an expensive plan known as the Constellation program, which would replace the Space Shuttle and return Americans to the moon by 2020 on a rocket built by Lockheed Martin, led to open arguments between the outgoing administrator, Mike Griffin, and the head of Obama’s transition team, Lori Garver.
The Orlando Sentinel reported on a confrontation between the two at a book party—this is still NASA—that ended with Griffin telling Garver that “if you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar.”
Two years later, Obama would cancel the Constellation program, after $11 billion in spending, and abandon the goal of returning to the moon. Instead, NASA’s focus shifted toward more ambitious science missions into the solar system, and particularly to Mars. At the same time, the Space Shuttle’s low-earth orbit transportation work was handed to private companies, setting up SpaceX and Orbital ATK to fly cargo to the International Space Station, and launching a race between SpaceX and Boeing to become the first private company to fly humans in space.
What will happen to those efforts under a Donald Trump presidency? One thing seems likely: Set aside Mars. Private companies are going to get a chance to do business on the moon.
Trump had little to say about space during the campaign, but did drop some hints during an October campaign appearance on Florida’s space coast.
“A cornerstone of my policy is we will substantially expand public private partnerships to maximize the amount of investment and funding that is available for space exploration and development,” Trump said. “I will free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low-earth orbit activity. Big deal. Instead we will refocus its mission on space exploration.”
That’s a very Obama administration-like idea. Combined with an op-ed by two Trump advisers, economist Peter Navarro and aerospace-focused lobbyist Robert Walker, which praised the “vibrant companies” picking up the slack for NASA in low-earth orbit, the firms bidding to do NASA’s trucking may not need to fear a shift back to the old model, where NASA’s designs were realized by contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin at cost plus a guaranteed profit, rather than a fixed fee.
Trump has otherwise said little about NASA’s other programs. And one very relevant question in this season of appointments is who he will tap to be NASA administrator. Within the rough and tumble transition, it’s still hard to say who will come out on top, but conversations with numerous current and former government officials, lobbyists, and space company executives offer a few ideas.
Trump’s NASA transition leader, Mark Albrecht, is a longtime space-policy hand who chaired a now-defunct government organ called the National Space Council. This was during president George H.W. Bush’s administration, when he pushed initiatives to streamline NASA operations. It’s now thought that the NSC will be revived for a Trump presidency, led by US vice president Mike Pence. If so, it would be with the goal of uniting space policy across government, particularly on national security issues, but it also risks turf wars with NASA over what to prioritize.
Both Albrecht and Walker are associated with Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and Trump confidant, who has nursed a legendary obsession with space and promised to build a lunar colony during an abortive 2012 run for president.
Those who see Gingrich as a driving force in Trump’s space policymaking expect that commercial space and a lunar focus will take the place of big government programs like the expensive Space Launch System and Orion, which is designed to bring astronauts to Mars, or even the International Space Station.
Yet there are still voices advising Trump who might implement a more traditional, government-centered approach to space exploration.
Griffin, the NASA administrator who kickstarted the Constellation program and clashed with Obama’s team, is mentioned for the NASA job but is seeking the role of Secretary of the Air Force, a role that would give him influence over the lucrative business of launching national security satellites—until a recently a monopoly held by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Eileen Collins, a former astronaut who spoke at the Republican National Convention in July, also is a dark horse possibility.
A likelier establishment candidate is Scott Pace, a former NASA official who now leads the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Pace has criticized the Obama administration’s space leadership and its decision to cancel the Constellation program and has been skeptical of commercial space, but he represents a nod towards continuity. Indeed, he may have difficulty fitting him in with Trump’s burn-it-all-down crowd because of his establishment history, including backing Jeb Bush during the Republican primary and advising Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012.
But like the Gingrich crowd, Pace still leans toward a lunar focus with international partners.
“From a policy standpoint, I’m more in favor of a US-led international return to the moon with commercial partnerships,” Pace told Quartz in September. “A lunar return has more opportunities for international engagement, more opportunities for commercial partnerships and commercial service contracts. Mars is fine as a long-term goal and something to aspire toward; in terms of it being a realistic next step, I don’t know that would be my choice.”
Who else could end up leading NASA? Oklahoma Republican representative Jim Bridenstine is an unabashed fan of Trump, lunar exploration, and commercial space, making him a possible choice if the administration is searching for an outsider who shares it goals. He, too, is up for consideration as a potential Secretary of the Air Force. But his appointment at NASA would likely be a tough sell to some of the agency’s scientists, since he is a prominent critic of research into how humanity is changing Earth’s climate.
Besides the expensive exploration programs, NASA’s efforts to track climate change using Earth-observing weather satellites are its most politically controversial work. Bridenstine and other Republicans have moved to cut funding from those areas.
Whether or not Bridenstine becomes the administrator, it is likely that the Trump administration and a Republican Congress will succeed in reducing government funding to research climate change from space. But any resulting damage to the research program might be constrained in the short term, since many of the projects underway have substantial termination costs or have already been fully funded.
Bridenstine’s exploration ambitions are clear. In a speech delivered the day before the election, he outlined his view that the US must create a permanent base on the moon. He argues that the moon’s resources, including water and metal oxides, could “profoundly alter the economic and geopolitical balance of power on Earth”—especially if China is the first to exploit them. In his view, the US “is the only nation that can protect space for the free world and responsible entities, and preserve space for generations to come.”
With competition from China another likely theme of the Trump presidency, it’s easy to imagine the US space program’s return to the moon being built around that rivalry.
Under legislation backed by Bridenstine, NASA already has begun a pilot program with private companies to develop moon habitats. One of the companies participating is Bigelow Aerospace, founded by the billionaire Las Vegas real estate investor Robert Bigelow. The company has been developing inflatable space habitats for years. SpaceX flew one to the International Space Station earlier in 2016, where it was inflated so that astronauts could assess its performance.
Bigelow’s dream is to build hotels in space.
“It’s just real estate in a different location,” he told Bloomberg News in 2013. “So you can sell these space buildings; you can lease these space buildings; the person that you lease them to can sublet them. You just better be sure that you have a way of getting back and forth to it. Otherwise, you’re really screwed.”
It’s easy to imagine the appeal of this idea to a real estate developer president with big ambitions and a taste for brash concepts. Climate change, exo-planets, and long-shot trips to Mars may ignite space geeks, but the idea of the world’s first space hotel may win out in Trump’s oval office.