By Douglas Messier
Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center last week was long on rhetoric and short on details, but a few themes and priorities have already emerged in the Trump Administration’s slowly evolving approach to the nation’s civilian space program.
NASA Will Lead Again
In a speech in which he repeatedly praised President Donald Trump, Pence used some variation of the word “lead” a total of 33 times (“leadership” 18 times, “leader(s)” eight times, “lead” six times and “leading” once).
In his Inaugural Address, the President rededicated our nation to once again lead in the heavens, and in his words “unlock the mysteries of space.”
With this President, it’s always about leadership — American leadership. And that begins at home, by putting the security and prosperity of America first. Today, we will speak of this President’s vision for American leadership in space. But between those two spheres, in Warsaw, Poland today, we were reminded that the American President is the leader of the free world.
If listeners walked away with anything drilled into their heads, it’s that Pence thinks the president is a leader par excellence, and that the highly symbolic arena of space will be a priority.
So, how many times did Pence mention his boss? Try 41 times.
- President Donald Trump/President Trump: 20
- President (referring to Trump): 16
- He: 4
- The man: 1
Pence might be heading up the newly revived National Space Council, but being a good number two, he gave all credit to the boss.
A Vague Critique
Pence did not specify the areas of space in which the nation is no longer leading the world, much less explain how the administration planned to address them. There are two likely reasons for these omissions.
One is they don’t have a lot of specifics yet. The National Space Council has no executive director, Trump has not nominated a NASA administrator yet, and there is no presidential science advisor heading up the Office of Science and Technology Policy. It’s difficult to formulate policy with such key positions unfilled.
The other reason is that, despite delays in key human spaceflight programs, NASA is actually in pretty decent shape. There might not be all that much to really criticize. Even if there were, publicly pointing out the problems would require the administration to provide a set of solutions they have not devised yet.
NASA’s biggest problem is the agency hasn’t launched astronauts from American soil in six years, and it hasn’t sent them beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) in 45 years. Programs to address both of these shortcomings are already in advanced stages of development.
For Trump to lead in space, it might simply require him to follow through on most of NASA’s existing programs while making some tweaks along the way. Some of that has already happened.
Back to the Moon — Again
“And from this ‘Bridge to Space,’ our nation will return to the Moon, and we will put American boots on the face of Mars.”
The Obama Administration long-range space plan focused on getting astronauts to Mars in the early- to mid-2030’s. As an interim step, NASA would launch a robotic mission to retrieve a large boulder and return it to the vicinity of Earth. Astronauts would use the Space Launch System (SLS) and an Orion spacecraft to examine the boulder.
The asteroid missions never received much support or any real funding from Congress. The Trump Administration has since canceled it. That leaves a bit of a void in terms of interim steps to Mars, unless you decide to skip them and go directly to the Red Planet.
In a call to astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in April, Trump asked whether NASA could land astronauts on Mars during his first term or, at the latest, before the end of a second one in January 2025.
Nobody was quite sure how serious Trump was in his request. It was also an odd question given that the president had just signed NASA’s FY 2017 budget bill, which specifically mentioned the 2030’s as the goal for human missions to the Red Planet. (Or perhaps not so odd, given Trump’s aversion to reading and policy detail.)
In any event, accelerating human Mars missions significantly doesn’t seem very practical given NASA’s current plan and budget profile. A human Mars mission would require an enormous expenditure of money and resources for an administration trying to shrink the government in size.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s ambitious plan to send astronauts there in the 2020’s is a possibility if the administration wanted to get behind it. However, there are a lot of potential problems with such a course.
For one, Musk is on the outs with the Trump Administration over climate change. His cost estimates and schedule appear extremely optimistic. Key members of Congress would balk at getting behind a Musk Mars mission at the expense of the SLS and Orion programs, which employ tens of thousands of people in their states and districts.
So, what could be done during Trump’s time in office? In his speech, Pence pointed to a return to the moon as an interim step on the way to the Red Planet. However, what he meant by that wasn’t clear.
The focus on the moon is not surprising given that NASA was already planning to send Orion around it before Trump took office. The space agency also had been funding companies to develop habitat modules for use with Orion in cis-lunar and deep space. A lunar space station where astronauts could test technologies for longer voyages to Mars has been proposed as well.
SLS and Orion were originally designed for lunar missions, not for Mars flights. Focusing these programs on an extended lunar exploration effort would pose no significant obstacles.
For surface missions, NASA would need to develop a lunar lander and habitat modules. Those would not be inexpensive, but they are important pieces of infrastructure where public-private partnerships might be possible.
The moon is a ripe target for an administration eager to demonstrate its leadership to the world. Just about every other major national space agency is interested in exploring our nearest celestial neighbor, not sending astronauts to Mars. An international effort would offer cost-sharing opportunities.
Whether the Trump Administration is eying a lunar space station, a return to the surface, or both is unclear. Officials may not know right now. There appears to be no money in the Trump’s FY 2018 budget request for these activities, meaning any serious proposals will have to wait until the FY 2019 budget request is unveiled next February.
How Are We Getting There?
Curiously, Pence made no mention of SLS or Orion during his speech. By contrast, the vice president devoted four paragraphs to praising NASA’s commercial partnerships and five paragraphs to Trump’s speech in Warsaw, Poland.
These are very odd omissions given the centrality of these programs to NASA’s budget and long-range plans. To make no specific mentions of them at NASA KSC where the vehicles would be processed and launched is stranger still. Pence was even standing in front of an Orion spacecraft as he spoke.
It’s possible Pence is keeping the administration’s options open in case of a later decision to cancel or scale back the SLS and Orion programs in favor of commercial partnerships to explore the moon.
It will be interesting to see how support for these programs are affected when SpaceX begins flying its Falcon Heavy. A flight test of the heavy-lift booster is scheduled for later this year. Elon Musk’s company also plans to send two passengers around the moon using the booster and modified Dragon spacecraft in 2018, although many observers question whether the schedule is realistic.
The Obama Administration’s attempt to cancel the Ares booster and Orion programs ran into a buzz saw of Congressional opposition. Orion was saved; the Ares heavy-lift booster morphed into SLS with much of the same shuttle-derived hardware. Only the smaller Ares crew launch vehicle was canceled.
Thus far, the Trump Administration has shown no inclination to cancel the SLS and Orion programs during its first six months in office. The table below shows NASA’s Exploration budget for FY 2016 (Obama’s last year), FY 2017 (part of a budget Trump signed), and FY 2018 (which Trump proposed).
|NASA EXPLORATION BUDGET FIGURES (Millions of Dollars)|
|PROGRAM||FY 2016||FY 2017||FY 2018 REQUESTED|
|Space Launch System||$2,000.0||$2.150.0||$1.937.8|
|Exploration Ground Systems||$410.0||$429.0||$460.4|
While the president’s budget proposes to cut Exploration spending by $389.9 million below the FY 2017 total, the amount is less than $100 million below the level for the FY 2016. These programs would still be funded at nearly $4 billion per year under the request.
It should also be noted that the reductions in these programs are part of a proposed $561 million cut in NASA’s overall spending for FY 2018.
- NASA’s FY 2016 budget: $19.3 billion
- NASA’s FY 2017 budget: $19.6 billion
- FY 2018 budget (proposed): $19.1 billion
The House Appropriations Committee has rejected Trump’s budget request. It would boost boost NASA spending by $219 million over FY 2017 to $19.9 billion. Within that budget, Exploration spending would be boosted by $226 million.
|NASA EXPLORATION BUDGET FIGURES (Millions of Dollars)|
|PROGRAM||FY 2016||FY 2017||FY 2018 (Requested)||FY 2018 (House Appropriations)|
|Space Launch System||$2,000.0||$2.150.0||$1.937.8||$2.150.0|
|Exploration Ground Systems||$410.0||$429.0||$460.4||$600.0|
The House measure would leave SLS and Orion spending at FY 2017 levels. It would increase spending for Exploration Ground Systems and Exploration Research and Development.
Praise for Commercial Space
“In fact, Kennedy Space Center is proof that public and private sectors can achieve more by working together than they could ever achieve apart. This center is today the world’s premier multi-use spaceport, and that truth will only continue to grow.
“In conjunction with our commercial partners, we’ll continue to make space travel safer, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before.”
Behind Pence on the stage were models of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which the companies are building to carry astronauts to the space station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
While he didn’t mention either vehicle, Pence devoted four paragraphs to praising NASA’s commercial partnerships and vowed to continue them in an effort to lower the cost of spaceflight. However, the vice president provided no specifics about how the administration might expand them.
NASA has already commercializedLEOt with cargo and crew programs. The agency is already looking at commercial options for maintaining a presence in LEO after ISS is retired, an event currently set for 2024.
The logical place to partner with the private sector would be lunar exploration. How the agency might do so will probably be a subject for Pence’s National Space Council.
Climate Change, Schmimate Mange
“Under President Donald Trump’s leadership, we will reorient America’s space program toward human space exploration and discovery for the benefit of the American people and all of the world.”
Pence’s promise to refocus NASA on human space exploration might seen a bit odd given that NASA is spending nearly $9.3 billion out of a $19.6 billion budget this year operating ISS and developing three new crew vehicles and a massive launch vehicle.
NASA’s supposed lack of focus on human spaceflight isn’t the real issue. The space agency’s focus on Earth science and global warming is what truly bothers the Trump Administration and many Republicans in Congress.
With a very few exceptions, Republicans in the capital are of one mind on climate change: it is nothing to worry about. Positions within the administration range from ‘it might be happening, but nobody agrees on how serious it is’ (Pence) to ‘it’s a hoax invented by the Chinese to destroy American competitiveness’ (Trump).
So, there was no surprise when Trump’s proposed FY 2018 budget cuts NASA’s Earth Science budget by $166.9 million from $1.921 billion to $1.754 billion. The budget would terminate five Earth Science missions, including: Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), PACE, OCO-3, CLARREO Pathfinder, and the Deep Space Climate Observatory’s (DSCOVR) Earth-viewing instruments.
Whether Trump’s proposed cuts to Earth science will stand remains to be seen. The administration requested $5.772 billion for the overall Science budget, a modest increase of $6.9 million over FY 2017 spending.
The House Appropriations bill includes $5.9 billion for Science, an increase of $94 million. House budget documents do not specify the amount for Earth Science, nor do they mention the five programs Trump has proposed to eliminate.
Republicans have argued that NASA has been spending too much money studying the Earth to address a non-existent problem. They also say there are plenty of other agencies doing the same work, making NASA’s efforts costly and redundant.
None of these claims really holds water. The Obama Administration boosted spending on Earth Science because it viewed climate change as a serious threat based on the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists. It also felt the administration of George W. Bush had underfunded this part of NASA’s budget for eight years.
NASA’s satellites and ground systems provide unique capabilities that are not duplicated elsewhere in the government. In fact, NASA provides data to these other agencies as well as researchers aboard that are vital to monitoring the health of the planet.
The ‘let other agencies do this work’ rational is undercut by the Trump Administration’s attempts to gut climate research and environmental programs across the government.
Cutting NASA’s Earth Science budget isn’t about freeing the agency to concentrate on deep space exploration. It’s about allowing the Trump Administration to avoid having to deal with a growing climate threat. The problem is, ignoring it won’t make it go away.
Finally, NASA’s problems getting astronauts beyond LEO has little to do with how much is spent on Earth Science. NASA can do both. The real problems result from the SLS and Orion programs, which have been extremely costly and time consuming to develop and will cost a fortune to operate.
The irony here is that an administration obsessed with American leadership seems intent on throwing that lead away when it comes to Earth science and climate research.
Trump could go down as the president that gets us beyond LEO again. But, what good would it be to gain the moon while the Earth deteriorates due to neglect? What sort of legacy would that be?