- Parabolic Arc
- June 2, 2023
Trump Administration’s NASA Policy Slowly Emerges
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)|
||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)|
||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?
38 responses to “Trump Administration’s NASA Policy Slowly Emerges”
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Nice editorial. We are 3rd rate or 3rd rated behind Russia and China in HSF. 2 new capsules will put us #1 again.
Human space launch maybe but in terms of human space flight we have the most people orbit so maybe tone back the defeatist attitude
It serves the political narrative and plays well with Trump’s base.
OTOH- We shouldn’t take our dominance and successes in HSF and space science as a given. Sometimes you need to be reminded of the wolf behind you even if you can’t see it.
You would be right about not taking things for granted if we weren’t already in the late stages of implementing a solution.
Point is we do lead and the only things the administration can do(or realistically get away with) to make it better other than stay out of the way and ride the wave would take a considerable uptick in spending and likely more time than they will be in office.
Reestablishing the National Space Council and attempting to get NASA focused back onto
rocket sciencedoing space stuff in space and basic aerospace R&D, does a lot more for that than the previous Administration.
Rocket science? Sls is a train wreck nasa should get out of rocket science leave the launching to commercial entities and focus on payloads.
But I digress ncs won’t matter as congress will continue to do its own thing with the appropriations regardless.
Payloads have rockets on them too. The NCS will matter IF it can have influence, ie; is useful to Congress in helping push for projects (spending). And in that it can promote continuity and consistency.
A payload that incorporates propulsion hardly calls for reorienting NASA to focus primarily on propulsion technology
See my reply to Mr. Houston.
I’ve now looked and honestly you’ve some how made your case worse…
So first on earth science you might have had a case if the administration wasn’t actively gutting these other agencies as you said this. Now any attempt to use the “it’s not nasa’s purpose” argument is gonna be taken in a very different light.
As for social impact and outreach that is such a tiny drop in the budget bucket I wouldn’t consider nasa in any way saddled. Nasa is one of the most respected government agencies it is a bargain to capitalize on this and do some good.
You are just rationalizing.
You are just towing your party line using a made up definition of nasa’s mission objective to push an anti-science agenda.
yeah because science is terrible. Who is mindlessly regurgitating a party line here?
Here is the propulsion NASA should be focused on
“Project Timberwind aimed to develop nuclear thermal rockets. Initial funding by the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) from 1987 through 1991 totaled $139 million (then-year). The proposed rocket was later expanded into a larger design after the project was transferred to the Air Force Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (SNTP) program and underwent an audit in 1992 due to concerns raised by Steven Aftergood. This special access program provided the motivation for starting the FAS Government Secrecy project. Convicted spy Stewart Nozette was found to be on the master access list for the TIMBER WIND project”
“Project Prometheus/Project Promethian was established in 2003 by NASA to develop nuclear-powered systems for long-duration space missions. This was NASA’s first serious foray into nuclear spacecraft propulsion since the cancellation of the SNTP project in 1995. The project was cancelled in 2005. Its budget shrank from $252.6 million in 2005  to only $100 million in 2006, $90 million of which was for closeout costs on cancelled contracts.”
Eeeeh… I wouldn’t rush into nuclear propulsion. The politics of it aside(mostly because those can be resolved with the unenriched uranium engines Marshall is studying) it creates as many problems as it solves. I’m more a fan of the chem-sep hybrid architecture nasa has been investigating.
Check it sep shrinks propulsion bus small enough you could send the whole dst (unstocked and unfueled) to the moon on a single sls block 2 or equivalent. Meanwhile the hypergolic thrusters compensate for sep’s flaw of slow transit time by providing high thrust at strategic moments such as mars capture and departure, allowing you to get from lunar orbit to mars and back in a practical time frame on a single load of propellant, no cryogenic, no radiation, and the whole thing is reusable to boot.
You want to see Democrats and environmentalists really go goofy? Just wave the prospect of building a nuclear rocket in front of them. Imagine contaminating the Solar System with its radiation!
I was on DKOS space blogging … it was my opinion also when I started. But after running almost 200 polls and being one of the top writers and in the top 10 I was pleasantly surprised at how many liberals, when it came to space, were not opposed to nuclear power. It could be sold I believe ..
The liberals who hang out on space blogs are not the same liberals who hug trees. And there are many MANY more of the later than the former. I think your sample population was a bit skewed.
Oh there were the tree huggers that would rant on every post I did relating to nuclear power in space, just not as many as I pre supposed on a site like DKOS. It was odd to see the debates ..
Yes, look at how the environmentalists protested Cassini because of its RTG.
I would love to see nuclear-thermal rocketry work restarted.
But I know that people freak and rational behavior tends to end, where the word ‘nuclear’ is spoken (I like to call it ‘the other n-word’ for that reason.), especially combined with ‘launch.’
Those who got bent out of shape over the Cassini RTGs will whip themselves into a frenzy over a high-temperature reactor. Even merely ground testing will be an approval nightmare.
And it requires additional money that I don’t see coming, no matter what agency works on it.
It was a single tiny group of whackos, led by a single leader, amplified by a media that loves fake controversy. And once that single group went away, how many lawsuits have there been over RTG-launches since then? MSL and New Horizons launched without a peep. And Mars2020 hasn’t raised a word of nuclear dissent. Plus god knows how many RHUs.
IMO, the hysteria about the hysteria about nuclear power is greater than the hysteria about nuclear power. I’ve seen vastly more people whining about irrational nuclear-fear than I’ve seen irrational nuclear fear.
Prometheus (NEP-reactor) was killed by Griffin to fund Constellation. Along with most tech development and over a quarter of science funding. NEP likely would have been part of the technology development package using the money freed up from cancelling Constellation, had SLS not been ordained. With SLS, there is, obviously, no funding.
No, the enemies of space nuclear power are still around as this website shows.
June 29, 2015
The Perils of Nuclear-Powered Space Flights
by Karl Grossman
You say that the Administration is trying to get NASA “back into rocket science” and we could guess that you mean designing rockets? You didn’t know that George Bush (President 43) started the Constellation program which then morphed into SLS/Orion under Barack Obama? So NASA has been in “rocket science” for longer than just the last Administration. You probably missed how the previous Administration put lots of resources (grudgingly) into the commercial efforts and thanks to them we now have reusable rockets, reusable capsules? Once we directed resources away from NASA and into commercial efforts we got innovative thinking that has produced innovative new capabilities??
You would rather see a program owned by the government rather than a program run by a commercial company? What do you have against private enterprise?
Actually what I meant was away from all the Earth Sciences and social impact/interaction stuff that NASA has gotten saddled with over the years and should properly belong to other agencies.
When you count all the money that has been spent on “Commercial Space” it has hardly been a deal for the taxpayers. The NASA designed STS also had reuseable rockets and spacecraft if you’ll recall. That wasn’t a deal either but to say you don’t get innovation out of NASA isn’t accurate.
Grudgingly? That was the core of Obama’s original plan, then using the savings to pay for NASA tech development. After the Senate created SLS, CC & cargo was the only part of Obama’s plan left.
Obama didn’t exactly fight for it or burn any political capital getting it funded. The real reason CC was funded was because there was a real and pressing need to be able to meet the ISS comittment for lifted cargo (and eventually crew), and CC was the quickest, “cheapest”, in fact really the only way to meet that.
Unlike his predecessors?
(Both Bushes made a big fuss over “return to the moon”, wrapped themselves in NASA’s flag, but did they win an ounce of the extra funding required for their proposals?)
The Bushes didn’t have the political mojo to see their proposals to reality, not that they lacked the will for it.
The sad reality is that space has a very low priority relative nationally, even when it has an advocate in the POTUS. About the only reason why it has even as much funding as it gets is because most space projects come with nice big price tags that are juicy prizes/leverage in Congressional sausage making.
Agree, congress has flushed 20-30 billion down the “monster rocket” rat hole.
I thought they HAVE been focused on rocket science since 2004? 12 billion flushed down the drain with Constellation under Bush and how many more billions on SLS orion during the Obama administration 16 billion?
you comment is kind of funny.
Yeah I really need to edit that for the pedantic.
In terms of current capabilities to include human rated capsule, human launch and space tug/refueling tug….Russia and China outclasses the U.S. However, our cargo capacity to ISS & returnable capsule outclasses them. Although, China is testing a huge cargo vehicle in space. The U. S. leads in ion thruster development/use, which negates a chemical refueling tug advantage of Russia and China. Our new crew vehicles will be able to provide tug services and cargo only in emergencies. So the U.S. is poised to take a giant leap ahead in capabilities during the next 2 to 3 years.
“Russia and China outclasses the U.S. “
Not outclass .. more like have a LITTLE bit of an edge in capability. In just a couple years the Nation will make them both look like they are standing still.
Very interesting analysis and it was a very interesting speech. Now to see if there is any progress, as you say the Administration is very big on promises and has shown a very poor ability to deliver on any of them.
A word by word analysis of a speech like this is interesting but who knows if hints gleaned from a speech are valid.
I think the return to the moon aspect of the speech was the most revealing part. And it wasn’t just word for word. I looked at the budget Trump signed and his proposed one for FY 2018.
But, still I think you’re right. Evidence is relatively thin as to what the administration will do with NASA.
The “word for word” comment was not a criticism your article, others have drawn too many inferences from specific comments in speeches. You did have some very revealing tables of budget numbers and those are definitely putting our money where their mouth is.
I also think that it was a conscious choice to put the commercial capsules in the field of view of the cameras.
Or third option, that climate change impact on the world improves things for humanity (blasphemy!). For example, the revised model shows it may benefit California by causing more El Nino events bring more water. Hopefully California will build more dams, and fix its existing ones, to better manage it.
It discusses how researchers at the University of California at Riverside predict about 12% more rain on the average for California, including up to 14% and 15% in Northern and Central California which is where most of the state’s water comes from. Looks like there may even be enough water for the Delta Smelt and farmers.
Really, as with climate change over the last 10,000 years, there will be winners and losers, with losses mitigated by adaptation. As I noted, I accepted that humans were causing climate change in the 1970’s. The disagreement I have is with folks who just see gloom and doom in it. Shipping being able to finally use the Northwest Passage, longer growing seasons in the rich Midwest farmlands, both for the Canadian prairie provinces and the U.S. and now more water for California are not really that gloomy for the future. It really is discouraging that folks that believe humans will be able to able to life in space will not be able to adapt to a warmer world.
And yes, I think NASA should get more funding to generate data, since it I feel that the more researchers actually look at the data the less they will be predicting gloom and doom.