Spaceflight Insider

OPINION: What’s the worst thing that could happen to NASA under Trump’s presidency?

Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

A Trump presidency, often joked about and derided, is now a reality. With Donald Trump often described as the “ultimate outsider”, what should, or rather, what shouldn’t the president-elect do regarding space policy?

While many analysts have laid out what the agency should expect from Trump, what the newly minted leader of the free world should avoid has not been discussed. Oddly enough, the greatest concern for NASA is that Trump might behave just as President Barack Obama did when he was elected into office eight years ago.

Candidate Obama promised to support NASA’s efforts, claiming he was one of the agency’s biggest fans and even co-opted the space agency’s crewed program-of-record at that time (Constellation) when he used the phrase, “Moon, Mars and beyond.”

Upon election, he worked to cancel that very program. In fact, had it not been for the actions of Congress, he would probably have set NASA’s efforts to send crews beyond the orbit of Earth back decades.

NASA has seen numerous cuts to its budget under Obama's regime. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

NASA has seen numerous cuts to its budget under Obama’s regime. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Obama visited Kennedy Space Center in April of 2010 and skipped visiting Launch Complex 39, Space Launch Complex 37, and SLC-41. He skipped all of them and only visited SLC-40 – the launch site of SpaceX. These actions spoke volumes.

However, given that NASA was placed dead last during his inaugural parade, even behind the “World Famous Lawn Rangers” and their brightly-colored lawnmowers, his true view of NASA has been rather obvious.

As was noted on USA Today, experts blame Obama for the slowed pace of sending astronauts to Mars, with even Bill Nye criticizing Obama’s efforts. This was just for the 2017 NASA budget. In 2012, Space.com noted that NASA’s Planetary Sciences division was targeted to receive a rather heavy cut.

As each year under his tenure has elapsed, those within the agency, both privately and publicly, have asked, “Why does he hate us so much?”

While derided in some space circles as the “Senate Launch System” – for it was a design mandated by congress after the cancellation of Constellation – NASA’s Space Launch System will provide the agency with a super heavy-lift capability and a ticket to beyond-Earth orbit. Its first uncrewed flight is scheduled for late 2018.

Oddly, Obama’s NASA programs of choice compliment the path NASA is aiming for – the path to Mars. Obama has shown interest in bolstering the agency’s initiative’s commercial efforts.

However, if President Trump behaves as President Obama did, if Trump’s penchant for holding grudges drifts in NASA’s direction and he opts to return the favor, it could set a pattern into place that is unlikely to be broken.

If every new president tries to undo what his predecessor has done, NASA will be rendered incapable of accomplishing anything. The agency is only just now seeing the vision of its two-tiered approach to crewed space flight take shape.

Under that concept, NASA has empowered several private companies to produce spacecraft and launch systems to send crews to the International Space Station. These include Boeing’s CST-100 Starlinerwhich would be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 422 rocket, and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft atop its Falcon 9 rocket.

While these companies would handle the delivery of astronauts to the orbiting lab, another set has already begun ferrying cargo, crew supplies, and experiments to the ISS. SpaceX again is among these with the cargo variant of its Dragon spacecraft as well as the Falcon 9.

SpaceX is joined by Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft and Antares launch vehicle in launching cargo. Soon, these companies will be joined by the cargo variant of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane.

By all accounts, Trump’s administration will likely allow both the low-Earth orbit and beyond Earth orbit efforts NASA is currently working on to continue. However, long noted as a climate change skeptic, Trump will likely cut NASA’s Earth sciences initiatives. What remains may even be moved over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an effort to streamline budgets.

Much as we weren’t allowed to keep our doctors, Obama likely won’t get to keep the legacy he wanted. However, in terms of NASA, efforts to salvage something after Obama’s attempt to end NASA’s crewed exploration initiatives have helped forge an agency with a bright future.

While Hillary Clinton’s supporters appear unwilling or unable to accept that she lost and having not gotten their way are throwing a national temper tantrum, attacking people, setting fires, and rioting – this is not the behavior of adults. Nor should it be the policy of a president. Accepting what has occurred and working with it is the sign of a rational, mature mentality. Obama should have modified Constellation and allowed NASA to continue on. He didn’t. He set a precedent that needs to be relegated, as was parts of the Constellation Program, to the trash heap of history.

Trump now has to accept what has been done to NASA and show that he can behave better than Obama did. Using an Obama philosophy of cancelling whatever your predecessor has initiated would see a NASA which has its “goal-line” always set out of reach and that is a legacy NASA can do without.

 

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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

In 2010, following the previous President’s cancellation the the Space Shuttle program, the President stated his plan for a heavy lift launch vehicle, a crew vehicle, and to send people into the solar system, rather than focus on a return to the Moon. Since then, the President’s proposed budget to Congress each year has included funding for the heavy lift vehicle, crew vehicle, their launch facility, as well as for commercial crew and cargo. Congress underfunded commercial crew for many years, while providing a small percentage increase over the President’s manned deep space budget.

I think that we owe the President our gratitude for his consistent support of the U.S. manned space program.

NASA currently has too may irons in the fire to satisfy many internal constituencies. There needs be some program rationalization in order to accomplish anything other than spending taxpayer dollars. The SLS seems, at this juncture, a vehicle without a really well defined mission other than the asteroid retrieval project–which is viewed by many with a great deal of skepticism. NASA would best serve the long term goals of deep space exploration by eliminating the earth science program and allowing NOAA to take over that goal. The proposed Mars sample return mission should be melded into the manned missions to Mars, and perhaps a joint venture with SpaceX makes more sense than developing a similar and competitive booster system at a higher taxpayer cost? Maybe–just maybe–NASA could help underwrite one of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches to the Red Planet and begin developing a Nuclear Reactor which could be flown there for a non-solar power option for the projected Mars Base I. Development of a Mars-suitable space suit; advanced rover technology for human use? Lots to think about!

You couldn’t be more correct.
In my opinion, after it was proven that the reusability is feasible, the SLS looks like a pile of money ready to be burnt at each launch without a really good reason, like a permanent base on the Moon or very elaborated missions to the Jovian and Saturnian Moons.

I disagree. I agree Obama should have not cancelled Constellation, but Trump should absolutely cancel SLS. Even when built, even if you don’t consider it WILL run behind schedule and be needing more money(NASA’s already admitted their Orion craft is behind schedule and searching for alternatives from SpaceX and others), the cost to operate the SLS rocket will be insane compared to what you can get out of the commercial sector.

He should cancel SLS, and bypass NASA altogether for building rockets for the goernment right now, while mandating they purchase a fully assembled heavy lifter or rides from SpaceX or BO.

NASA should NOT be working on building things that the commercial sector is more efficient at, cheaper, AND much newer tech and are already doing anyway.

They should maintain an R&D department into researching future space travel technology, new engines, and methods for interstellar space travel.

For our solar system, all the money from SLS should be funneled into SpaceX and Bue Origin for their heavy lift boosters.

sls is a boon doggle boondoggle boondoggle,obsolete junk waste of reources reusability,thas how u do it

I should like to see more unmanned flights to the outer planets. There is much more to be learned about their environments. Maintain the manned program for Mars.

Lets just hope that President Trump provides NASA with more opportunities in future budget planning,,,and that he leaves politics out of future space planning…

NASA isn’t building SLS or Orion, that’s Boeing & Lockheed Martin. Your statement NASA is building SLS/Orion is either a display of ignorance or a lie. Given Obama tried to cancel all of NASA’s crewed exploration initiatives? Maybe it’d serve you right if Trump cut funding to SpaceX.
It makes no sense to send any more money to SpaceX until they can figure out how to launch something without it blowing up. Blue Origin has only shown it can reach sub orbit. Neither have launched a single human being anywhere (not even sub orbit). That is why NASA is working with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, these organizations have launched crews – yours haven’t. Your argument isn’t just factually-devoid, it’s selfish and stupid. While I get you’re a NewSpace fan boy and acting solely on your love of those companies, your argument is shallow and transparent. The article states both efforts, including the ones that fund “your” companies, should be maintained. That’s shows a heck of a lot more grace than your comment did. Rather than show your appreciation for and acknowledge that, you choose to continue with the behavior which has cost your side so much this year. Unwise. America has spoken and it said it’s had enough of such displays of arrogance. Until your companies launch somebody, anybody, somewhere without the rocket blowing itself up – you don’t get the big contracts. Understand?
As of November 8th the shoe is on the other foot and you could find yourselves in the funding crosshairs.
Maybe it’d help you understand how many of us felt when Obama tried to flush everything we’d been working on for years, if Trump cancelled “your” programs.

The re have been comments here and on other sites that the SLS will probably never accomplish the asteroid retrieval mission–which is pretty pointless anyway. So far, Orbital ATK and SpaceX have flown supply missions to ISS, whereas BO has done a number of suborbital demonstration flights. My understanding is–SpaceX gets paid for actual deliveries, and no R & D funding; ditto Orbital. SpaceX has had 2 explosions in something like 26 missions, and Orbital had one very spectacular failure. NASA itself lost 2 Space Shuttles, and the crew of Apollo I. The track records are all about what one would expect in this field of endeavor.
My suggestion: cancel the SLS, which is horrendously expensive and see whether or not the Obama cancelled Ares I can be salvaged/resurrected n order to reclaim some of the money spent? That was powered by an Orbital ATK solid booster, I seem to recall? This whole start-stop system accomplishes nothing other than burn up lots of taxpayer dollars. The whole “cost plus” funding model is at the hear of things; pay only for performance at the completion and successful outcome of projects, or at stage achievement goals.
And, neither SpaceX nor Orbital ATK have lost astronauts; NASA and the Shuttle HAVE>

I agree with some of what you have to say, however, your comment that: “And, neither SpaceX nor Orbital ATK have lost astronauts; NASA and the Shuttle HAVE>” is transparent/disingenuous. It’s hard to lose someone when you’ve launched no one – sorry that argument is meaningless and kinda sad (Orbital ATK isn’t even involved on CCP – I don’t know what you were thinking by suggesting otherwise). From what I’m told, due to it being fueled after crew would board Dragon? Many astronauts consider SpaceX’s design to be a flying coffin and they’ve got two accidents in 14 months validating those fears. To that, two accidents in 14 months versus three accidents over the course of 36 YEARS. I understand, I really do, folks make inaccurate comparisons and ignore certain facts all the time and this was probably just a mistake on your part.
However, you also downplay SpaceX’s own “spectacular failures.” Anyone who watches what happened to the Falcon 9 back on September 1 would have to do some impressive mental gymnastics to NOT call that spectacular and given that a Dragon spacecraft is currently serving as an artificial reef at the bottom of the Atlantic – ditto for the catastrophic CRS-7 mission.
I fail to see the point of resurrecting Ares 1? Why just that rocket? Why not the Ares V as well? It seems you’re “path forward” is to merely funnel funds to only LEO operations – where we’ve been stuck since 1972. I want the agency to actually do something again. The only thing the continued NewSpace gravy train accomplishes is duplicating what we produced back in the 1960s. That doesn’t sound like much of a future to me and a great many others, sorry, we’ll take a pass on that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jlj2BW8AtUQ

OK, I believe we are somewhat on the same page in many of these issues. I understand the concerns regarding the newSpace corporations haven’t yet built up the track record you would like to see. Before anyone rides to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 v.1.2, there will be at least 2 more test flights in order to fly the Dragon manned capsule version and to test the abort system. There will also be several more Falcon 9 unmanned flights taking loads to the ISS and inserting comsats into GTOs. Other than SpaceX and Boeing, there isn’t any other option than reliance on the Russians.
I too am pushing for getting out of LEO and doing something exciting. What NASA has contracted for thus far is a truck line making deliveries to the ISS, and nothing else. I’m a huge supporter of the Mars Direct or Mars Semi Direct models for further exploration. The NASA Mars Sample Return mission is about as complicated and convoluted as they can make it–just to support many of the internal groups who would otherwise be irrelevant. What NASA really lacks is a clearly defined mission; not some cockamamie asteroid retrieval, but either a return to the Moon, but better to Mars. I simply suggested resurrecting Ares I as a starting point and using a cheaper technology for the deep space probes instead of this massive SLS that will break the budget in a manner similar to how the ISS has monopolized the NASA budgets. Not really wanting to argue, but simply use this forum as a sounding board for some ideas.

Totally agree we need to end our dependence on Russia. However, for me, this isn’t about “doing something exciting.” This is about the preservation of the human race. You nailed it, NASA has no clearly defined mission and it needs one. One that isn’t messed with by (as this article suggests) any new president coming in (as the big “O” did).
Moon first, develop it as a staging area for Mars. I just don’t see how resurrecting Ares 1 will do anything. My take? Redevelop/rebudget SLS to make it more affordable. If you want to launch crew on a separate vehicle, maybe the Falcon Heavy (once SpaceX un”bleeps” itself). Not trying to argue either and I have to say, having someone willing to meet in the middle is rather refreshing! Thanks!

For me, doing something exciting is defined by doing science on a planetary surface, preferably Mars. By “doing science,” that means looking for life either past or present. I would not be doing the field science, were I to be on an expedition, but running a laboratory seeking out complex organic molecules which are either metabolic building blocks or evidence of life past. The Miller-Urey experiment indicated that amino acids are formed by UV irradiation and spark discharge in an atmosphere composed of Carbon Dioxide, Ammonia, and water. Miller’s experiments neglected to include hydrogen sulfide, otherwise even more than 16 amino acids could have formed. Looking for traces of amino acids carbohydrates, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and other bio indicators would be thrilling for me. There isn’t the excitement for me scientifically in a return to the Moon. My background is actually chemistry, but with a strong aerospace engineering foundation. Good conversation here, and thanks to you too.

Interesting that the National Geographic Channel’s new series on Mars focuses on SpaceX in the first episode and hardly mentions NASA, according to this piece from TPS:

http://www.planetary.org/blogs/casey-dreier/2016/1114-natgeos-new-mars-miniseries-begins-tonight.html

Excellent analysis and commentary Jason! Given the years that you have devoted to “speaking truth to power”, I’m sure that you realized that your unvarnished factual presentation would raise the usual firestorm, especially from disciples of “The Musksiaah”. Cancellation of the Vision for Space Exploration was a costly error. Hopefully the Trump administration will be given the opportunity to make NASA great again, and hopefully the “Bernie-Sanders-never-a-nickel-for-NASA,-haven’t-seen-the-social-program-I-didn’t-love” bunch will stop their whining and wimpering for the cancellation of the realistic AMERICAN human spaceflight program with SLS/Orion in favor of the MuskMyth. Cancellation of our SLS/Orion is about as likely as Lori Garver being appointed Chief Administrator of NASA.

The landscape has changed over the past few years, since both Orbital ATK and SpaceX have visibly demonstrated the ability to launch space vehicles into LEO; NASA is no longer the only game in town. A much more realistic approach would be joint ventures of NASA with these NewSpace companies. Instead of laboring along at a glacially slow pace we might achieve some great things before the next Ice Age.

I find it funny the way some people say, full of pride, about he AMERICAN human spaceflight program. It won’t happen like in the 60’s. There is nothing pushing the government to give NASA the money the agency needs to make things. It’s not because the agency isn’t capable. Those guys are fantastic, but the government will not make money giving money to space exploration. The government won’t make the majority of the dumb population happy spending money with the space program. It’s not about the blablabla “Muskmessiah”. It’s about the probability that a company can make money with this, while the agency will not.

I hope I’m wrong, but to make something really happen, many nations will have to split the bill, and even so, it better be cheap, else we will die old waiting for something useful to happen.

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