OPINION: President-elect Trump’s NASA landing team continues to take shape
Though both major party candidates made clear their position on a multitude of issues prior to the election, their view of NASA’s role in our nation’s space-faring endeavors was not necessarily among them. Certainly, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump often gave politically expedient answers when asked what their vision of what NASA should be, but neither has ever really presented a coherent roadmap for the agency’s future.
Indeed, Trump seemed, at times, to present wildly diverging positions on the nation’s space agency. At one point, the then-candidate professed to love NASA but declared that the country has bigger problems to address, such as fixing potholes.
Whether or not he was speaking of literal or figurative potholes, it appeared as if NASA wasn’t terribly high on Mr. Trump’s priority list and that the businessman-turned-politician didn’t necessarily have a ready answer for his take on national space policy.
However, now that the election of 2016 is in the books and the President-elect continues forming his Cabinet and landing teams, it would appear that Trump – or, at least, his advisory team – is taking NASA a bit more seriously. More seriously than during the campaign and is selecting an experienced collection of members, some of whom seem to favor a “stay the course” focus, while others may be adherents to the NewSpace movement, to help the incoming President decide how best to direct NASA during his presidency.
From the outset, Jeff Sessions, a Republican Senator from Alabama, was a key architect in guiding the make-up of the landing team, and conventional wisdom dictated this was a strong indicator that NASA’s big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which was designed and is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, would not only survive a Trump presidency but also could likely thrive.
The team’s leader and first member, Chris Shank, was named near the end of Nov. 2016 and is largely considered to be a defender of NASA’s current direction. Shank has experience with “both sides” of NASA – he worked within the agency itself during administrator Mike Griffin’s tenure, and on Capitol Hill, where he served as a policy director for the House Science Committee.
To many observers, Shank’s selection signaled that NASA’s mission and core programs would remain relatively unmolested, and the next round of additions to the team seemed to largely bolster that opinion.
Jack Burns, Professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder, was an early addition to the landing team and has written about the benefits of the SLS, along with the Orion crew vehicle. He noted how the capabilities they provide could open lunar far side exploration opportunities.
Landing teammate Steve Cook is, likewise, a proponent of the SLS. Cook is vice president of Dynetics, headquartered in Huntsville, and he is also a former NASA Ares project manager. Cook has written openly about the nation’s need for the heavy-lift capabilities the SLS should provide in order to undertake a mission to Mars.
“Only SLS has enough room to accommodate large, critical payloads like planetary landers and bulky in-space habitats and other structures. Packaging such systems into a space six times smaller would be extraordinarily challenging and would dramatically increase cost and risk while limiting overall mission capabilities,” penned Cook in an Op/Ed piece for the Orlando Sentinel.
Retired astronaut, and fellow teammate, Sandra Magnus may be a proponent of the commercialization of space, but she also sees the need for NASA’s SLS. In an article posted on Space.com, Magnus spoke of the importance of the SLS and how large programs like it help to expand the boundaries of what is known and, eventually, that body of knowledge will migrate to private industry for the benefit of all.
Though it may appear that more traditional spaceflight supporters make up the team, commercial spaceflight has its advocates, too. Indeed, with venture capitalist Peter Thiel supporting Trump during the election and having the President-elect’s ear, the NewSpace movement has a powerful friend as NASA prepares itself for the next four years of a new administration.
To wit, outspoken SpaceX supporter, and SLS detractor, Greg Autry was also named to Trump’s NASA landing team. Autry co-authored a paper in which he states the development of the SLS amounts to a direct competitor to commercial launch providers and is detrimental to the development of the young industry.
“Worse, with the SLS lacking a specific mission goal and facing ever tighter federal budgets, the program may choose to fill its manifest and justify its overhead by competing with the private sector for the commercial launches in the HOMs,” noted Autry, on page 43 of the analysis. “Introduction of a large governmental competitor into a nascent market creates an extremely undesirable economic situation.”
The landing team added NASA-alum Charles Miller to the group a few days before Christmas, though with little fanfare. Miller is viewed as a strong supporter of commercial spaceflight efforts as he was a senior advisor in the agency’s commercial space efforts and will undoubtedly attempt to steer the team in a commercial-inclusive direction.
There has also been talk of bringing Alan Stern and Alan Lindenmoyer onto the team. Stern, widely known for his role as principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and Lindenmoyer, a retired manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center, are both considered to be advocates of commercial involvement in the agency’s operations.
Rounding out the team’s current roster are Rodney Liesveld and Jeff Waksman. With Waksman having a background with climate science, he may be on the team to help guide NASA’s Earth sciences programs. Liesveld, a former policy advisor at the agency, will also lend his expertise to the landing team.
What does all this mean for NASA? Does the recent addition of Miller, and the rumored addition of Stern and Lindenmoyer, signal a change in NASA’s direction in our nation’s spaceflight operations? Or will the agency “stay the course”?
It all depends on which school of thought – commercial or traditional – prevails with the President-elect. The next few months could prove to be very interesting.
The views expressed in this Op-Ed are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily, reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider.
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.