Up in the Air: NASA’s Uncertain Future Under Donald Trump

As NASA grapples with finding funding for research in addition to exploration, the agency faces its biggest hurdle yet: a president who denies climate change.
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As NASA grapples with finding funding for research in addition to exploration, the agency faces its biggest hurdle yet: a president who denies climate change.
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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has to wear a lot hats. The space agency is known for launching both humans and robots into space; it also keeps up with the International Space Station, makes sure our satellites continue flying, and is firmly at the forefront of planetary climate research.

As noted climate change skeptic Donald Trump prepares to assume the office of the presidency, the future of NASA’s research agenda — and whether or not it will continue to assume its place as the preeminent agency on global climate change — remains to be seen.

“It’s always very difficult to predict things from President-elect Trump,” says Ram Jakhu, a law professor and associate director at the Centre for Research of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Canada. “There has not been a clear indication of what he would like to do.”

In early December, Trump and his daughter Ivanka had a 90-minute meeting with former vice president and climate change evangelist Al Gore, which left people on both sides of the aisle wondering whether the president-elect might be softening his stance on climate change. But just days after the meeting with Gore, Trump announced climate change denier Scott Pruitt’s nomination for head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Whether or not that appointment is a portent of things to come is unknown. Trump has announced nominations for 17 of 689 key positions that require Senate confirmation, according to a database maintained by the Washington Post. NASA gets three key positions among those nominations: NASA’s administrator, the deputy administrator, and the space agency’s chief financial officer. So far, Trump has not offered any names for those positions.

Still, there are hints that climate change isn’t high on the president-elect’s list of priorities. During the president-elect’s campaign, Robert Walker, a senior policy advisor to the Trump campaign, wrote a SpaceNews.com op-ed detailing the new administration’s space policy, and further elaborated on those goals at a Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee meeting on October 26th.

According to Walker, the goals of a Trump administration include human exploration of the solar system by the end of the century, and an emphasis on strategic partnerships between NASA and the private sector. They also include a reallocation of resources from NASA’s Earth Science Division to other areas, such as technology and deep space exploration. The Trump administration itself has not said much about NASA and its plans beyond what Walker said during the campaign. However, his transition team has indicated that NASA will not be receiving an agency review at this time, according to an email sent to all NASA employees from associate administrator Robert Lightfoot.

NASA’s priorities over the next four to eight years all hang precariously in the balance.

Casey Dreier, director of space policy for the Planetary Society, a non-profit organization that promotes space exploration education and research, notes that Walker is not involved in the transition and is unlikely to be involved in the administration because he is a registered lobbyist, making it impossible for him to be on the transition team.

“[It’s] something to keep in mind: The person who wrote most of these goals is not currently involved in the transition directly,” Drier says. Of course, that doesn’t mean Walker won’t unofficially serve as an advisor. Walker confirmed as much in an interview with Space.com, saying that, though he is advising the transition team, he is not formally serving on it. In that same interview, Walker said the policy he outlined in his October proposal is also in flux and could change.

Without a concrete plan, NASA’s priorities over the next four to eight years, which may include manned missions to space, basic Earth science research, and the development of technologies to get people to Mars and beyond, all hang precariously in the balance.

One of the more ambitious goals discussed in Walker’s op-ed deals is the human exploration of the solar system by the end of this century. Walker views the goal of human deep space exploration as a vehicle to propel technology and the private industry-public sector partnership he would like to see flourish, according to his op-ed.

At the current pace, Dreier does not believe we’ll be close to deep space exploration by century’s end, and these grand plans seemingly ignore a far more fundamental issue: funding.

“Look at the broad, more high priority proposals of the Trump administration,” Dreier says. “You’re looking at a very large tax cut; you’re looking at increasing expenditures on military and possibly some sort of large infrastructure bill. They’ve identified cutting non-defense discretionary funding as a place to help pay for all of those initiatives.”

Non-defense discretionary spending is what people tend to attribute to the government: services such as veterans assistance, living assistance, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, NASA, and the National Science Foundation.

“Generally, in the past, as non-defense discretionary spending has diminished, NASA tends to diminish in that budget too,” Dreier says. “So if the overall budget goes down despite the intentions to make it good, NASA won’t be able to go much of anywhere. NASA policy doesn’t drive budgetary policy. It’s the other way around.”

Since no one knows where the Trump administration might try to cut taxes, and it’s speculated that the administration will not submit a budget proposal as other incoming presidents have done for over 40 years, what NASA will get in terms of funding and how that will affect the different divisions within the agency is a huge question mark. “Something that Trump is much more aligned with the Congressional majority on is — at a minimum — tax cuts,” Dreier says. “If those don’t return some sort of money to the treasury, we’re just looking at very large deficits or attempts to cut other parts of government, of which NASA is one.”

Jakhu echoes Dreier’s sentiment. “Space programs are very spectacular,” he says. “It shows the pride of a nation. But in the grand scheme of things [the space program] is small in activity, at least economically. So if President-elect Trump were to do other big things — lowering taxes and increasing infrastructure spending — then perhaps there may not be much money for NASA.”

Another key point in Walker’s comments at the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee meeting was the revival of the National Space Council, which was last seen during the George H.W. Bush administration in 1989. Headed up by then-Vice President Dan Quayle, Bush’s council proposed a return to the moon and a mission to Mars, which Congress scrapped because of the expense involved.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence likewise will head up the modern-day National Space Council. Still, the announcement sheds little light on NASA’s future. “It’s a plan to come up with a plan,” Dreier says.

“There’s kind of a symbolic value of it,” Dreier says. “Theoretically, it can be a high ranking, influential group of people who will have a lot of implicit support from the White House to take a holistic look at the nation’s entire space policy, both military and civilian.”

In reality, the effectiveness of the space council will ultimately be determined by whether it’s treated as a symbolic group or as a council that actually sets policy.

Another aspect of Walker’s pre-election proposal that raised eyebrows dealt with gutting NASA’s Earth Science Division. Even with the prospect of budget cuts, NASA announced its first new Earth Science mission since Trump’s election: using satellites to observe plants from space, and draw conclusions about how climate change might be affecting vegetation.

Currently, NASA’s Earth Science program is the largest of the agency’s four science divisions, alongside astrophysics, heliophysics, and planetary science. The Earth science division uses satellites and airborne missions to study land surface, biosphere, the Earth itself, atmosphere, and oceans. It receives about $1.9 billion per year, and is about 10 percent of NASA’s overall budget, according to NASA reports.

There were indications in Walker’s op-ed that the division might be facing rough times, however, which could spell trouble far beyond NASA’s walls.

“NASA should be focused primarily on deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies,” Walker wrote. “Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal. Developing the technologies to meet that goal would severely challenge our present knowledge base, but that should be a reason for exploration and science.”

Walker has suggested shifting some of the duties and research covered by the Earth Science program over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is its own independent government agency. But Dreier thinks this may not be the best strategy. While NOAA has weather satellites up in space, those satellites are managed by NASA.

“NOAA actually works with NASA to launch its weather satellites,” he says. “NOAA doesn’t launch climate science satellites. NASA is the only government agency that actually sends up scientific missions to study the Earth. No one else does that.”

Researchers and scientists from NOAA and myriad other scientists and academics also depend on the data gathered from NASA’s Earth orbiting satellites.

“NASA runs monitoring programs looking at the size and shrinking of the ice caps,” Dreier says.“[There’s] a lot of money invested in super computing, climate modeling, simulations, and lots of basic research in climate science. Not even necessarily connected to climate change, but just Earth science. Understanding Earth as a complex system is supported by NASA funding and NASA data.”

Because NOAA’s budget is about $6 billion per year as compared to NASA’s $19 billion, Dreier estimates that, for NOAA to take on NASA’s climate research, that agency would need a huge budget boost.

“A lot of the world depends on this data.”

“There’s a lot of consequences for removing that program from NASA,” Dreier says. “A lot of the world depends on this data. So other countries or other space agencies would have to launch additional missions to study the climate.”

Despite all the doomsday talk surrounding the gutting of the Earth Science program, Dreier does not believe it will be cut entirely.

“Cutting [the Earth Science program] all together would be very disruptive — to remove an entire division from NASA, not to mention the consequences to the broader scientific community,” Dreier says. “It would be much easier politically to shrink the budget.”

One of the bright spots in Walker’s proposal seems to be an emphasis on NASA’s continued partnership with the private sector. According to Jakhu, Trump’s interest in supporting private industry could herald private company involvement in other activities, specifically in the area of space mining.

“Perhaps [Trump] may cancel other programs, which have been initiated by Obama administration, but I think one can expect he will encourage the private sector to be more involved with mining of asteroids or the moon,” Jakhu says.

In his op-ed, Walker hinted at an even bigger relationship between private industry and the space agency:

Public-private partnerships should be the foundation of our space efforts. Such partnerships offer not only the benefit of reduced costs, but the benefit of partners capable of thinking outside of bureaucratic structures and regulations.

Trump also said he supported the privatization of space exploration at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire while he was still trying to secure the Republican presidential nomination back in 2015.

But there are some gray areas in terms of resource utilization. Neither NASA nor the American government can claim any part of the moon as its own. The Outer Space Treaty, which took effect in 1967, forms the basis for space law; according to Dreier, no one contemplated the role private companies would play in the commercialization of outer space almost 50 years later.

In any case, we’ve already seen good results with NASA’s partnerships with companies in the private sector, as Dreier points out. NASA has had success working with SpaceX and Orbital ATK in resupplying the International Space Station, according to NASA’s own documents.

“If everything works the way it’s supposed to, NASA saves money,” Dreier says. “Industry benefits from having a stable partner and a stable revenue source, and you help the space industry bootstrap itself into becoming completely independent, operating at least in low-Earth orbit.”

Public-private partnership becomes a bit trickier when discussing something like deep space habitats because companies work off fixed-price contracts with the agency. The risks with low-Earth orbit are known and have readily available solutions, Dreier points out. Something like building a deep space habitat for humans might present unknown problems that eat into a company’s project budget.

“It’s finding the right areas where NASA can strategically invest in these companies and these companies feel that they can raise their own capital and take these reasonable levels of risk,” he says. “That could theoretically free up NASA to use their resources in other ways.”

At best, the long-term outlook for NASA remains hazy. It’s not without hope, however. Trump, ever the showman, clearly values space as an inspirational tool.

Following the death of astronaut-turned-Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, Trump tweeted that “we lost a great pioneer of air and space in John Glenn. He was a hero and inspired generations of future explorers. He will be missed.”

Whether his work will be missed literally or figuratively is, for now, up in the air.

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