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