Comment: Written By Rian Whitton.
Earth science is being sacrificed for increased deep space exploration, while the influence of private companies will continue to grow.
Not many of Silicon Valley’s techno-elite were inclined to support Donald Trump throughout the campaign. With the exception of differences regarding privacy and surveillance, relations with the Obama administration had been relatively cordial. A well-publicised secret meeting between top Republicans and tech leaders like Elon Musk and Tim Cooke included discussions about Trump’s unsuitability as a candidate. 145 former and current executives wrote an open letter denouncing his candidacy in July 2016, with some going as far to say Trump would be a disaster for innovation.
Perhaps the singular figurehead from the court of Silicon Valley to bet correctly on the election was Peter Thiel, a consistent outlier in political opinion. Perhaps it is no surprise that, while other technologists were unimpressed by Trump’s brashness and old-fashioned background in legacy industries like gambling and real estate, Thiel sees someone who can, in his eyes, reverse America’s relative decline as a leader in innovation by breaking the globalisation consensus.
Now his bet has paid off and Thiel’s stock has already increased, with him currently acting as an advisor and playing a pivotal role in shaping the incoming administration’s views on technology, innovation and the future of the American Space programme.
As Trump enters the White House, NASA stands at a crossroads. The last lunar landings were in 1972, after which much of funding focused on shuttles and constructing the International Space Station. Through to the Bush and Obama administration, the organisation has focused heavily on its long-term programmes, with investment in heavy rockets, telescopes, inter-planetary spacecraft and earth-observing satellites. Much of these projects, like the Space Launch System (SLS), will debut under Trump’s presidency.
Likewise, billions of dollars worth of stimulus into private enterprise as a way of lowering launch costs means NASA’s future goals will heavily involve commercial actors.
3 fundamental questions determine the direction of the Trump administration Space policy.
Firstly, to what extent will NASA be oriented to space exploration instead of Earth science?
From all that the transition suggests, Trump is going to severely cut NASA’s earth-observation efforts. This would certainly chime with the twitter remark about climate-change being a Chinese hoax. Under these auspices, climate-change observation is unlikely to retain the current level of funding under the next administration.
Some of Trump’s advisors, such as Bob Walker (a former congressman) have argued that NASA should be set with the stretch goal of exploring the entire solar system by the end of the century, as opposed to “politically correct climate-change spending”
In a way, this shift will come as no surprise. Earth-observation has yielded positive gains for NASA, but its widely recognised ‘golden age’ of deep space exploration and the ambitious Apollo programme were always intertwined with international competition and a preference for straining the limits of technological possibility over more mundane research on terrestrial matters. Increased emphasis on deep space exploration certainly fits in with the Trump campaign’s rhetoric of making America great again.
It is likely that earth observation funding will be slashed through cuts to the $2 billion Earth science division. This represents roughly 10% of NASA’s entire budget, so while cutting earth science won’t drastically shift NASA’s resources for more ambitious projects, it could severely hinder progress on mapping climate change.
Secondly, what will be the main priorities of NASA’s space exploration?
Will the Moon or Mars be the next destination of American astronauts? It should be said there is not necessarily an exclusive choice between the two. Powerbrokers in Washington like Bob Walker and Newt Gingrich have called for a return to the moon as a prelude to the more ambitious and technologically demanding endeavour of Martian conquest.
That Gingrich has been an outspoken supporter of Trump might suggest another moon landing is more likely. In 2012, the former speaker of the house ran for the Republican nomination on a platform that included setting up a lunar colony by 2020. It was even suggested that, upon reaching 13,000 occupants, the colony could apply for statehood. How this extra-terrestrial slice of Middle America would fit into the Electoral College remains anyone’s guess.
Given Gingrich’s proposal was estimated at costing hundreds of billions, it was lambasted not just by the Saturday night live circuit, but also by co-republican Mitt Romney.
4 years later, however, and a Trump presidency could conceivably see Gingrich’s dream enacted. For one thing, this ambition had been government policy under George W. Bush’s constellation programme, which was cancelled under Obama. Since then, the expected cost for such a colony has lowered to under $100 billion. Simply sending Astronauts back to the moon would be considerably less.
Perhaps more importantly, Russia is reportedly planning to send 12 cosmonauts to the lunar surface, while China is also flexing is muscles as an aspiring space superpower. Given international competition, born out of the shock of Sputnik in 1957, played a critical role in syphoning federal money to the Apollo programme, one can expect the current trajectory of geopolitics to be played out in space at some point.
Whether a return to the moon is the short-term aim for Trump’s space policy, placing humans on Mars will certainly remain the long-term goal. Obama had already signed NASA up to complete a manned Mars mission by 2035.
Whether the Mars mission will be aided by collaboration with other actors like Russia, China and the European Space Agency (ESA) remain to be seen. As stipulated, the driving engine for the funding of space travel has been government competition. Nevertheless, cooperation with other actors reaps commercial and financial benefits.
Until now, the world has consistently looked to NASA for global leadership, but the uncertainty rebounding from Trump’s dramatic victory has left agencies like ESA uncertain about future commitments. Currently, ESA is contracted to build a large part of NASA’s upcoming Orion human capsule. However, European policymakers are concerned that American aerospace manufacturers like Boeing will tickle Trump’s desire to move manufacturing back to the United States. ESA is, therefore, likely to hedge its interaction with NASA by developing closer ties with Russian and Chinese agencies.
On the issues of cooperation, Trump is known to have written that he will seek global partners and that space is not the ‘sole property’ of America. This view is however complimented with a bizarre rally in Dayton, Florida where the President-elect argued America was ‘like a third-world nation’.
Such hyperbole receives consternation among space grandees like Lori Garver (NASA deputy minister 2009-2013), who argues NASA remains the envy of the world. As is always with Trump, the question will revolve around how action matches up to rhetoric.
Thirdly, what will be the relationship between NASA and private industry in delivering on these aims?
By bucking the trend of his own industry and supporting Trump, Thiel is ascendant in becoming one of the president’s key advisors on technology and innovation. Already, he is advising the hiring of 4,000 jobs in the next administration.
Thiel is also working with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, earlier in December setting up an initial meeting between Trump and Silicon Valley’s elite, whose combined market value exceeds $2 trillion. Thiel used the meeting to recommend increased involvement on the part of private industry to achieve NASA’s objectives).
The explosion of space-start-ups like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin alongside traditional aerospace manufacturers represents perhaps the greatest shift in the landscape of space exploration between the Apollo programme and the present day.
In the sixties, the former German scientist and pioneer of ballistic missiles; Werner Von Braun, was a key figurehead with an ideological determination to see men reach the moon, complimenting his technical knowledge. Now, Silicon Valley tycoons like Musk and Bezos are exhibiting similar roles; as public figureheads who are technically literate but are also ‘true believers’ in the necessity for humans to become a space-faring species.
A key issue around the preference for private actors has been the highly expensive government-procured space launch system (SLS). While this system would be of greater size and sophistication than the famous Saturn V that took men to the moon in 1969, Musk and Bezos have already been developing reusable rockets in the case of SpaceX the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, in Blue Origin’s case, the Glenn rocket.
While neither of these rockets is large enough to conduct a Mars-level voyage, they represent the growing sophistication of private firms in challenging both government and traditional aerospace contractors. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have also given selective details on future rockets that will match the SLS in size and sophistication.
With Peter Thiel becoming an advisor to Trump on issues of innovation, it is expected that he will leverage his influence to promote entrepreneurs like his long-term friend Elon Musk. This has incurred criticism from legacy aerospace contractors, who feel such developments would enrich Musk and Thiel personally and thus constitute a conflict of interests.
Beyond increased opportunities for private start-ups, the Trump administration may possibly reopen the national space council, which closed down after George H.W Bush’s presidency. This organisation would act as the conduit between civilian and defence wings of the American space industry, with the aim of increasing information and technology sharing.
NASA’s current chief administrator, Charles Bolden, will likely hand in his resignation shortly after the inauguration, after which time the choice of his successor will give a clear indication of where Trump’s space policy will go. Choosing an experienced NASA-insider or representative of the established aerospace sector would suggest continuity and perseverance with the expensive SLS, while a representative of SpaceX may suggest a further shift to private enterprise.
There are some very strong reasons for SLS remaining the flagship project of the agency, despite running costs. A powerful contingent of republican senators, (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio among them) have relevant NASA centres in their states, and so many current projects (including SLS, the Mars Rovers and the James Webb Telescope) enjoy strong congressional support. By rational calculus, it is unlikely Trump would deviate much from the status quo and thus incur a congressional battle he may not win.
At the same time, Trump’s promise of massive tax cuts alongside very far-reaching promises for increased infrastructure spending (relating to roads, bridges, tunnels, airports) means a likely fall in short-term government revenue with a large increase in expenditure. This will necessitate large cuts across a range of government departments. While the Pentagon will be ring-fenced from such issues, NASA is vulnerable to a drop in funding that could scupper the plethora of expensive projects currently being developed. Should this happen, greater responsibility could be expected for private investors to provide cost-effective alternatives.
Trump is not inheriting static agency. It is improbable that he will reverse the production of expensive projects like the SLS, given the substantial investment already placed in NASA’s future. It is also highly unlikely that the mid and long-term ambitions of reaching Mars or establishing bases on the Moon will reach completion during the potential eight years of Trump’s tenure.
With the cutting of earth science funding and a refocus to more ambitious flagship projects, we could be seeing the groundwork laid for a new era of space travel, and with space being used for its political capital to a greater extent. The tension between legacy aerospace contractors and New Space firms will be a determining feature of Trump’s space policy, and early indicators suggest the influence of futurists like Thiel will shift favour to the latter.
Alongside these developments, the increased vocalisation of American nationalism could interact with the efforts of competitors to herald the return of the Space-race that characterised technological innovation from the fifties to the seventies.
Rian holds both a Masters degree in science and security from King’s College London and a bachelor’s degree in history and politics from the University of Sheffield. He is a digital writer, focusing on issues relating to technological innovation, security and international relations.