The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NASA under Trump is still waiting for marching (and launching) orders

Elon Musk of SpaceX, left, and Wendell P. Weeks of Corning listen to President Trump during a meeting of business leaders at the White House. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Amid massive political upheaval, NASA just keeps cruising along, a $19 billion, 17,500-employee agency that so far has flown under the radar.

NASA employees are waiting to find out whether they'll be told to send astronauts back to the moon. They hear rumors that the Trump administration will try to strip the agency of its Earth Science research. Most of all they are wondering who their new administrator will be. Their leader for nearly eight years, Gen. Charles Bolden, said his farewell this month, and Trump has not nominated a replacement. The name that keeps surfacing as a top candidate is Rep. Jim Bridenstine.

In the meantime, the person in charge is a civil servant, Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who has been with the agency since 1989.

“Right now it’s me,” he said of the administrator position. "I’ll be glad to get one in here.”

Will Trump echo JFK's moonshot and vow to send humans to Mars?

The Trump administration's "beachhead team" for NASA showed up Monday. So far, according to Lightfoot, everyone's just getting desks and phones and computers assigned. There has been no command from on high to change policies about communications — nor any attempt to take down the agency's extensive online discussions of human-influenced climate change or other scientific issues.

What Trump will want out of NASA is unclear, because no one's talking. Trump has rarely spoken about space, but he and his aides have now met several times with Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX. (Musk went twice to Trump Tower, and was part of a gaggle of business leaders that visited the White House earlier this week.)

Musk badly wants to colonize Mars, and he is a man in a hurry (which is why today he's been tweeting about the tunnel he wants to bore between his office at SpaceX and Los Angeles International Airport — anything to dodge that heinous L.A. traffic!).

Elon Musk unveils Mars colonization plan, but don't pack your bags just yet

Trump and Musk have different political ideologies, but they would seem to be on the same page when it comes to contracting and the costs of traditional aerospace contracts. Soon after the election, Trump went after Lockheed Martin over the costs of the F-35 stealth fighter. Musk has no love for Old Space behemoths such as Lockheed and Boeing, who jointly own United Launch Alliance, which dominates the military and national security launch business. Musk can plausibly claim to provide a much cheaper launch service via his Falcon rockets; his rivals will note that SpaceX has had two launch failures in the past year and a half. But Musk's anti-establishment posture could prove attractive to Trump and help explain this surprise bromance.

How Trump could really disrupt NASA

Ultimately, NASA answers to the White House. Vice President Pence is expected to reestablish an entity known as the National Space Council, and serve as its chair. That would oversee not only NASA but the (this part has to be whispered) even more extensive U.S. military and national security space operations. (You should know that taxpayers fund a lot of telescopes that look down, not up.)

President Obama killed his predecessor's moon program, Constellation, but Trump and Pence could revive it in some form, or find a way to combine a back-to-the-moon program with NASA's existing "Journey to Mars.”

Key point: NASA's current plan is to go slow and go reliably. That means sending astronauts to Mars no sooner than the 2030s. Moreover, that first mission would call for the astronauts to orbit the Red Planet but not land. There would be no boots on Martian soil. That would come later.

Trump could say: Not good enough. We're going to land, and we're going to do it soon, on Elon Standard Time, in 2024. When, it so happens, Trump intends to be president, still.

Read more:

A brief history of "change” presidencies

Mars is not a plan B