In multiple ways, the Trump administration is trying to project the president’s Make America Great Again rhetoric into space. Trump has vowed to ramp up the nation’s missile defense system with a space-based layer that’s “ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense and, obviously, of our offense.” And he’s pushed for the creation of a Space Force, a sixth branch of the U.S. military.
It’s a major shift. Space policy has always served national interests, but the United States has increasingly entered into partnerships for exploration and science. The gleaming example is the International Space Station, a joint venture that has survived geopolitical strife among member nations.
The celebrated first direct image of a black hole, unveiled this month, came from an international collaboration involving telescopes on four continents. The image was created by turning the entire globe into one giant radio antenna. In a 2015 breakthrough, physicists from universities and research institutes in more than a dozen nations pooled their energies to detect gravitational waves for the first time.
And NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, includes instruments provided by Canada and Europe, and it will launch on Europe’s Ariane rocket from a spaceport in French Guiana.
For years, U.S. space policy has been relatively immune to the most intense partisan battles in Washington. Democrats and Republicans have supported each other’s favored projects — a big new telescope over here, a big new rocket over there.
But NASA remains an agency in the executive branch, answering to the dictates of the White House as well as powerful members of Congress. After the space shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, President George W. Bush’s administration decided NASA should retire the shuttle fleet and invest in new hardware to send astronauts to the moon by 2020.
President Barack Obama was cool to the moon plan, saying been there, done that. And a presidential committee appointed by Obama concluded that the agency didn’t have enough money to make the moon plan plausible. Obama ordered the agency to send astronauts to an asteroid and then eventually to Mars.
Trump’s election led to another pivot. Trump came into office hoping to do something dramatic in space. He expressed disappointment that NASA couldn’t send humans to Mars in his first term. Pence took the helm of the National Space Council, a White House unit that had been moribund for a generation and that now put civilian and military space operations under one roof. The administration told NASA to reverse course again and cobble together a moon program, ASAP.
How much the new MAGA-in-space rhetoric will translate into reality is unclear. Without additional funding from Congress or a change in the laws of physics, NASA has little chance of putting boots on the moon within Pence’s five-year time frame. But Pence’s speech certainly energized the aerospace community and jolted NASA, in part by signaling that the administration would consider a moon plan that used commercial spacecraft and not merely the hardware directly developed and owned by NASA.
It’s also unclear if the Space Force will materialize as a separate military service. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle aren’t sure it’s necessary. There’s already a space command within the Air Force. To be clear: This would not involve some kind of military deployment of uniformed personnel in space, as in the movie “Starship Troopers.”
The United States, like every other technologically advanced nation, is increasingly reliant on space for military and economic strength and needs to be prepared to protect its fleet of satellites. India blew up a satellite a few weeks ago in a demonstration of technological capability. China did the same thing in 2007 in a test that alarmed the Pentagon and national security agencies and created a cloud of space debris.
Pence has called space “the newest war-fighting domain.” That language has been adopted by top Pentagon officials.
“Having carefully observed our dependencies on space, China and Russia have developed new technologies, strategies, tactics, and asymmetric capabilities specifically intended to deny our freedom of operation in space. While we would prefer space remain free from conflict, they have made space a war-fighting domain,” acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in prepared Senate testimony earlier this month.
In his March 26 speech in Huntsville, Pence cited China’s recent success in landing the first robotic probe on the moon’s little-explored far side. That mission “revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation.”
China has plans for a sample-return mission later this year, and India hopes to put a lander and a rover near the lunar south pole. Israel recently attempted to land a probe, which crashed. And Japan and Russia both are working on missions involving lunar landers.
The European Space Agency has for many years been a reliable partner of NASA in major space missions, but after Pence’s speech, the Europeans had to reassess the relationship.
“We are in contact with NASA to discuss how Europe could play a role, and we are part of the game,” Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency, told The Washington Post. He noted that the Europeans are still providing a service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which could play a role in a lunar mission. And he said he is asking his colleagues to speed up development of elements that could be used for an ascent module to take astronauts off the moon during a lunar landing mission.
He said he hopes cooperation, rather than competition, drives space policy in the future.
“There is no fence in space; therefore, we can work together, above all earthly borders,” Woerner said. “But of course there is also a political will behind space, and this is what Vice President Pence said. This is different from what is done in Europe, but we are different people.”
Scott Pace, a White House officials who serves as executive secretary of the National Space Council, said the reason NASA may use American-only hardware for a moon mission was pragmatic. International partners simply won’t have time to craft crucial elements of a 2024 lunar landing, he said. The United States already has a NASA-owned rocket and capsule in the works — both much-delayed, over budget and controversial — and could potentially tap into the burgeoning commercial space industry for important elements of the moon mission architecture.
Pace said international partners didn’t buy into NASA’s earlier Mars aspirations and had begun to drift away. The moon is a more plausible near-term target, Pace said, and the partners will be part of longer-term lunar exploration.
“Space in general is an environment where it helps to have partners,” said Laura Grego, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s expensive, it can be dangerous, and, of course, it is the province of all human beings.”