Enlarge / Trump and Clinton, should we send them into space?Aurich / Getty
reader comments 6
Share this story
Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump on science, energy, and the climate
Clinton blasts Russian cyber-attacks as bid to install Trump as a “puppet”
If elected, Clinton would support an “Encryption Commission” to help feds
Report: Tech investor Peter Thiel will donate $1.25M to Trump campaign
Presidential candidates promise to change America’s roads, but how?
View more storiesAt the upper edge of the atmosphere, where the sky kisses outer space, a few molecules of nitrogen and oxygen bounce around.
If we consider the presidential election as playing out at the surface of the Earth, amid a thick atmosphere of invective and accusation, it is not a stretch to say the relative importance of space policy lies somewhere near the edge of space, bouncing around inconsequentially, like these stray molecules.
Even so, the next president of the United States will have the ability, if not the desire, to shape the future of America’s civil space programs—especially with major decision points on the horizon, including the privatization of spaceflight and the details of where humans should go beyond low-Earth orbit.
For this reason, we’re going to look at what changes a new president might make and what attitudes each candidate has had toward space.
Among the first tasks of a new administration is to launch a transition team to review major federal programs. With a budget that comprises about 0.4 percent of all federal spending and a significant chunk of the country’s discretionary funds, NASA will face meaningful scrutiny.
Such transition teams will delve far beyond the rhetoric of hashtags, like #JourneyToMars, and get under the hood of the space agency’s programs and whether funding exists to carry them out.
Mark Albrecht served as President George H.W.
Bush’s principal advisor on space, and he has been enmeshed in such policy discussions for the better part of three decades. He’s lived through several presidential transitions, and he can say exactly what will happen to NASA and its human spaceflight programs when either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump become the next president of the United States.
“The first thing a new administration will do is an independent review of the status of programs, and what they find will surprise no one,” Albrecht said.
Inevitably, he said, an independent commission will discover an ever-growing bureaucracy and underfunded, over-ambitious programs. Whether the new president acts on these findings is another question entirely.
The modern NASA
Before digging into positions held by Clinton and Trump, let’s get some perspective on how NASA has changed since the days of Apollo.
During a US human spaceflight panel discussion titled “Lost in Space,” held at Rice University in October, Albrecht described how NASA has grown from a lean agency focused on beating the Soviets to the Moon into one that now serves many masters.
“NASA takes on more and more activities, everything from more Earth science to exploration activities to high-speed computing,” Albrecht said. “I’m sure there’s stem cell research being done somewhere at some NASA center. Over time, those pieces begin to grow constituencies, and, like anything else, they get a little more money every year.
That cycle goes on and on.”
How did our space policy get to where it is today? We look at the key players during the administration of President Barack Obama.
Obama chose four-time astronaut Charles Bolden as NASA’s administrator.
Bolden has embraced the Journey to Mars but has not said how much it will cost or how NASA will pay for it.
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, speaking to shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, sought to make sweeping changes to NASA in 2010 by turning over rocket building entirely to private companies and allowing the space agency to focus on innovating spaceflight technology.
She left NASA in 2013.
Bill Nelson wanted no part of Garver’s changes. He spearheaded a “compromise” that allowed NASA to continue building large rockets.
The Senate wrote the specs for the Space Launch System, leading some to dub it the “Senate Launch System.”
Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was the co-leader of the compromise with Nelson.
She felt NASA would lose essential capabilities without an SLS-like program.
She also tried without success to keep the space shuttle flying beyond 2011.
Alabama Senator Richard Shelby has emerged as the chief supporter of the SLS rocket in the Senate.
The rocket is being designed and tested in his home state.
Each year since 2011, as a lead Senate appropriator, Shelby has added more money to NASA’s budget for the rocket than NASA has said it needed.
Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski has worked to make sure that other areas of NASA’s budget, including the costly and oft-delayed James Webb Space Telescope, have received ample funding.
Elon Musk, of SpaceX, has benefited from NASA contracts to develop commercial cargo and crew services. His company could almost certainly develop a lower-cost large rocket than the SLS, but the Senate wanted no part of that.
Mike Griffin, NASA’s administrator under George W.
Bush, wanted to remain in that position for Obama.
But the president rejected Griffin’s Constellation plan—and Griffin himself.
If a Republican wins the 2016 election, Griffin could return to NASA or elsewhere to shape policy.
John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has favored Earth science over human spaceflight.
Bill Gerstenmaier, who has overseen NASA’s human spaceflight programs since 2005, has tried to make the best of the Orion capsule, the SLS rocket, President Obama’s grand goal of Mars, and limited funding.
The bureaucracy has infected large projects like NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, Albrecht said. When these big projects start out, they have “optimistic” estimates for cost, schedule, and technical challenges.
Those estimates eventually catch up with the programs.
And while NASA’s top line budget might increase to account for these problems, much of those increases are consumed by new constituencies that have cropped up in recent decades.
Accordingly, when the National Academies or an independent panel review these big exploration programs in 2017 or 2018, they will find them to be underfunded, behind schedule, and, given budget projections, a long way from delivering significant accomplishments. Yes, it’s possible that the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft will fly together in late 2018, but these vehicles are unlikely to carry humans into space until 2023, and human landings on Mars remain more than two decades away.
Will the new president care?
Space hasn’t been a meaningful issue in the 2016 presidential election to date, and it’s unlikely to become one.
This is part of the problem with NASA overall—it simply has lost its relevance to the nation’s strategic interests.
In the 1960s, NASA served as a champion of US preeminence during the Cold War.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the space shuttle launched national security satellites. Now? The agency has a much reduced role.
Certainly, NASA represents a potent projection of soft power, and it has utility in easing geopolitical tensions thanks to the healthy US-Russian partnership to sustain the International Space Station.
But when the president confronts the major issues of the day, such as border security, terrorism, the economy and more, NASA is not essential to resolving any of these.
James Muncy, a Republican-leaning space policy expert based in Washington, DC, said NASA and civil space efforts won’t rank high enough to be addressed during the early days of either a Clinton or Trump presidency.
The agency will probably drift awhile, he said, along its present course.
“Neither President Clinton nor President Trump is going to make any major changes in US civil space policy for the first couple years of their term,” Muncy bluntly declared. “So it would be nice if everyone just chilled out.
Congress can write another ‘don’t terminate any contracts’ provision into the omnibus if they want, but it’s a waste of words.
The next president may trim NASA’s budget, but they will not change direction because that would require thinking and caring about NASA. Hint: they don’t.”
The wild card
Probably the biggest change in the aerospace industry since President Obama took office in 2009 is the emergence of SpaceX, which has provided substantially lower-cost launch services to NASA, the private sector, and the US military. Now SpaceX, along with other companies such as Blue Origin, are continuing to develop new, larger rockets, which on paper promise to significantly undercut the price of NASA’s SLS rocket.
During his remarks at Rice University, Albrecht addressed this issue as something a new administration and Congress will have to grapple with. “For a few years now, we’ve been watching the private sector leaping and bounding ahead,” Albrecht said.
This may cause a “confidence problem” for NASA; decision-makers may start to ask whether NASA should be building large launch systems when the private sector can do it at a lower cost.
Some may begin to wonder why NASA isn’t facilitating the private companies instead of trying to compete with them, he said.
For now, NASA’s response to such questions has been that it has a special competence, along with its traditional aerospace contractors such as Boeing, to design and build large rockets.
Congress has bought into that.
This viewpoint will remain defensible for a few years more, but it may be a very different conversation in 2020, when not only is SLS flying, but both SpaceX and Blue Origin have heavy lift options at a fraction of the cost of the government rocket.
So what could change?
With all this said, we can glean some insights into how each of the presidential administrations might eventually change NASA.
The big questions with human spaceflight concern the fate of the large, costly SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, especially in light of the rise of commercial space, and how NASA should employ its big rockets to explore the solar system.
In the case of SLS and Orion, Congress is explicit in its support of these large, multibillion dollar programs that provide a multitude of jobs across many states. Killing either of them outright would require a significant investment of political capital in convincing a skeptical Congress. (This might become marginally easier if Democrats take the Senate, as it would remove SLS champion and Alabama Senator Richard Shelby from his powerful subcommittee chairmanship, which has oversight of NASA’s budget). Were a president skeptical of these big vehicles, instead of making a full frontal attack, a potential policy may entail providing basic funding to keep SLS and Orion going while waiting to see if SpaceX, Blue Origin, or other private providers come through with much less costly private options by the end of the decade.
The bigger question may well become how NASA will use the vehicles. President Obama set NASA on a course to have astronauts visit a near-Earth asteroid before sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. However, due to funding, the crewed asteroid mission has devolved into a robotic spacecraft that would return a small lump of rock to near the Moon. Neither Congress nor the scientific community have embraced this mission, and it will probably be modified or canceled.
Substantial questions also remain about the viability of NASA’s Journey to Mars absent a significant infusion of funding to the space agency’s exploration budget.
Hillary Clinton has spoken about the SLS rocket and NASA’s Journey to Mars just once on the campaign trail.
She did so during an August speech on her jobs and economic plans at the Futuramic company offices in Macomb County, near Detroit. Until the year 2000, Futuramic was exclusively an automotive supplier, largely to the Ford Motor Company.
After the great recession, Futuramic emerged with other business interests, including aerospace and some SLS contracts.
Enlarge / On August 11, 2016, Hillary Clinton toured Futuramic Tool & Engineering in Warren, Michigan before giving a speech there on the economy.
Futuramic is a major Space Launch System contractor.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Clinton highlighted this transformation as part of her speech. “We all face choices in life, don’t we?” she said. “And this company could have just said, ‘Hey, you know, our business is not going to be what it was, we’ve got to just fold up, let’s just kind of quit.’ But that’s not what happened here, and what happened here is what can happen across America. You are in now what is largely an aerospace company…
I got to see what’s happening here to help build the SLS rocket that is going to go from Macomb to Mars.”
However, Clinton has made no formal expression of her space policy.
A Clinton presidency could be supportive, neutral, or even negative toward SLS and Orion. Her answers to questions posed by Space News in October were generic and included the standard line of nearly all presidential campaigns, that NASA would enjoy the full support of a Clinton Administration.
The Clinton campaign has not expressed specific space policies yet because the central campaign probably has no formal space policy. Rather, it has a network of largely informal advisers.
Ars has learned that, through these advisers, a Clinton presidency would likely continue many of Obama’s space initiatives, including robust support for the commercial space industry and Earth science research. Unlike Obama, Clinton would probably emphasize using NASA to further international diplomacy.
Bill Clinton championed the International Space Station, after all.
A Clinton transition team also would look very hard at the Journey to Mars and weigh its costs and likelihood of eventual success.
As Ars has previously reported, at least one of Clinton’s advisors on space policy believes that refocusing NASA toward the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars makes more sense.
Since Mars and the Moon are where many of NASA’s international partners, most notably the European Space Agency, want to go, such a change would fit within Clinton’s goal of leading an international exploration effort.
It would also be an easier sell to Congress than fighting SLS and Orion.
Until recently, even less was known about a potential Trump presidency.
By various turns during the primary and presidential campaigns, Trump has said he’d rather focus on filling potholes on Earth than sending humans to Mars, he’s said NASA is great, and he’s said America has the space program worthy of a “third world nation”.
Donald Trump has recently expressed support for SpaceX.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
However, the October 19 publication of a an op-ed in Space News, authored by Bob Walker and Peter Navarro, senior policy advisers to the Republican nominee, provides insight into where Trump’s space policy might go.
It paints Trump as something of a champion for commercial spaceflight and private companies like SpaceX. “SpaceX stands out as a company committed to a Made in America policy,” Walker and Navarro write.
The op-ed is, in fact, bullish on the private sector’s ability to build large launch vehicles. “It makes little sense for numerous launch vehicles to be developed at taxpayer cost, all with essentially the same technology and payload capacity,” the op-ed states. “Coordinated policy would end such duplication of effort and quickly determine where there are private sector solutions that do not necessarily require government investment.”
The op-ed didn’t criticize SLS or Orion directly, but it did not mention the government vehicles, either. Moreover Walker, a former chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, authored an influential Wall Street Journal commentary three years ago that explicitly called for the privatization of the US launch industry.
Nevertheless, while these may be the wishes of a pro-business presidential candidate, bucking the will of Congress is another thing entirely, especially as some of Trump’s most die-hard supporters come from Alabama. (Trump’s first Senate endorsement came from Jeff Sessions, who has steadfastly stuck by him).
Given Trump’s dismissal of climate change as a serious issue, he could probably find common cause with Congressional Republicans to cut NASA’s Earth science research budget, which provides data to better understand how the planet’s climate is warming.