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How Trump could really disrupt NASA and the space program

Home, as seen from space. (NASA)

This post has been updated.

The Trump people are taking over NASA, and it’s hard to predict how this will play out for the agency's human spaceflight program. That’s in part because the usual rules of partisanship and ideology don’t apply in outer space. Above the stratosphere, there’s no left and right. (If anything, things are somewhat reversed, because a lot of Republicans support Big Government human spaceflight projects, as we’ll discuss in a moment.) Moreover, the president-elect hasn’t said much about space, and space wasn’t an issue in his campaign, either.

To the extent that Donald Trump has signaled any intentions, it's in the makeup of the "landing team" now at NASA to plan the transition. The team has several people who have shown interest in going back to the moon. So, as we've reported, the moon could be very much back in play.

In these waning days of the Obama administration, NASA continues to brand its programs as part of a “Journey to Mars.” The label is, to some degree, public relations pure and simple. In the near term, NASA's plan is to send astronauts around the moon in a series of missions in the 2020s. Why? Because there's nowhere else to go at the moment given current funding and hardware. Trump’s people could say, hold on, let's actually land on the moon. That would require new hardware or international partners and a lot of money. Some moon advocates say there are resources there, such as ice, that could be turned into fuel for a Mars mission.

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A couple of weeks ago, Trump spoke with historian Douglas Brinkley, and afterward Brinkley said Trump “was very interested in a man going to the moon and the moon shot.” That generated some press, because of the Mars vs. moon debate, but most likely Trump was merely thinking about how he could take a page from President John F. Kennedy when he gives his inaugural address. This was about style, not the space program, in other words.

The people who want to go to Mars right away say the moon is a diversion and would result in many decades of delay. They note that the moon and Mars are completely different. Yes, they’re both round objects in outer space,  but beyond that, they’re an apple and an orange. Each presents unique challenges for descent and landing, resource utilization, communications, crew psychology and more.

Yet the moon-Mars question actually may not be the most consequential fork in the road for NASA. If the Trump folks want to be really disruptive, they could veer more dramatically toward commercial contracts and away from traditional contracts. They could favor "New Space" vs. "Old Space," to be overly simplistic about it. (Disclosure: Among the most prominent entrepreneurial space companies is Blue Origin, which, like The Washington Post, is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.)

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The landing team at NASA was recently expanded to include several people associated with commercial space. Among them: Alan Stern, whom readers will recognize as the leader of the New Horizons mission to Pluto. A few years ago, Stern formed a company aspiring to create commercial flights to the moon.

The Trump folks could conceivably take the radical step of killing the SLS rocket -- the Space Launch System, a descendant of the heavy-lift rocket pushed a decade ago by the George W. Bush administration under its Constellation program. Obama officially killed Constellation, but elements survived, protected by several powerful senators. Those include the SLS and Orion, a crew capsule now in its second decade of development, with a price tag north of $10 billion. The idea is, the SLS will launch Orion into outer space, and Orion will orbit the moon, and the astronauts will return to Earth, and then they'll do that a bunch more times.

It’s hard to kill big space programs that cost a lot of money. Think: stakeholders. Think: too big to fail.

But there’s this other avenue of attack in space, which is to let the private companies design, build and own the hardware and then for the government to pay those companies for access to space. This is already happening with cargo going to the International Space Station, and in the next few years, U.S. astronauts will fly "commercial" into orbit. SpaceX is already building a huge rocket called the Falcon Heavy. The George W. Bush administration pushed commercial space, which helped SpaceX get going, and then Obama doubled down on it. So this is a bipartisan concept, to the extent that anything in Washington is bipartisan.

The problem is that it won’t make some of the big aerospace contractors happy. And that means it won't make some powerful lawmakers happy.

Follow the money, someone once said.


Novelist David Brin, author of Earth, The Postman and Heart of the Comet, emailed a response to this blog item:

Joel. I like most of your reporting a lot, but the piece on Trump and NASA, while informative, seems to miss an undercurrent. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are eager for an all-out "Mars or Bust" push, though both see it as a long term goal. The alternative to the Moon is not Mars, it is asteroids.
Most of the scientific community and all the new space entrepreneurs, from [Elon] Musk and Bezos and [Peter] Diamandis to Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, are eager for missions to analyze the wide variety of near-Earth asteroids or NEOs. Ever since John Lewis wrote Mining the Sky, in the 1980s, we've known that some of these objects offer easy access to gobs of water — the massive necessity for space activities. Others offer prodigious amounts of iron, nickel, gold and platinum. Except for some meager ice at the hard-to-reach lunar poles, the moon has none of these things.
For analysis of such samples, no place is better than lunar orbit, and that is why the Obama Administration aimed NASA there. Also, from lunar orbit, it would have been cool to offer transit services to all the wannabes and johnnies-come-lately who want to land on the sterile moon. Russians, Chinese, Europeans, billionaires...why do another useless "joint program," when their prestige-race to imitate Apollo would make lively competition. And cash for our lunar-orbit station. More dusty, lunar footprints do nothing for us. Not at the bottom of that deep and useless gravity well.
As it happens, this issue, like everything else, has become partisan. If you find some American wanting to go to the moon, it will almost always be a Republican. The facts and the math and any scintilla of national interest all point to asteroids. In fact, experience using asteroid resources could let us turn Phobos into a logistics hub, which would then make any Mars exploration much more practical. Moreover, many tech billionaires see the promise in potential trillions of return from asteroids, much to the horror of those whose fortunes depend on resource extraction from our dwindling planet.

And another reflective email came from Linda Billings, a consultant to NASA's Astrobiology Program and Planetary Defense Coordination Office:

Ideology has been a significant shaper and driver of the U.S. space program: the rabid anti-communism of the 1950s that led to the formation of NASA, the belief that capitalist democracy is the only viable form of political economy, American exceptionalism, technological determinism, libertarianism – which is really big now in aerospace. It’s shocking how firmly the Obama administration embraced it with regard to the space program, and it's going to get worse. Libertarian thinking has been driving the discourse about "commercial" space development for decades...
Even President Carter gave a little lip service to "commercial" space development, but it was the Reagan administration that first made a big deal about it — which is how I came to enter the space community, as editor of a long-defunct trade publication called Space Business News. So all this "news" about “commercial space” sounds like old news to me — what the "commercial" people want is the same thing the aerospace megacorporations want — tax breaks, subsidies, big fat contracts, access to government facilities and expertise. SpaceX is already one of NASA's top 10 contractors and also is on the list of the U.S. government's top 100 contractors.

Looking around the web:

Jeff Foust at SpaceNews discusses the landing team and warns against reading too much into the background of its members.

Keith Cowing at NASAWatch has a blog post about old vs. new, traditional vs. commercial.

Read more:

NASA has a spaceship, but where will it go?

Which way to space?

Mars is not a Plan B

Why it's hard to get to Mars

Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars, but don't pack your bags just yet