In case you’ve been living in a cave, Donald Trump is now President-elect of the United States. Much has already been said about what this might mean for the environment and other areas, but what does it mean for space?
Well, in lieu of any concrete policy from Trump, we can glean a few tidbits from things he’s said – amid some speculation.
For starters, we’ll be getting a new NASA Administrator, replacing current chief Charlie Bolden, who announced he would stand down prior to the election regardless of the result. Whether this new Administrator will continue with NASA’s current goal, sending humans to Mars in the 2030s, or pick a new direction remains to be seen.
Some insight into what Trump’s policy might be comes from comments made in October at the Orlando Sanford International Airport. Here, he said he wanted to “free NASA” from being stuck in Earth orbit and “lead the way into the stars”.
This seems to hold true with speculation making the rounds at the moment. Most think Trump is going to focus much less on Earth science, and more on human exploration.
NASA is committed to staying in Earth orbit until at least 2024 with the International Space Station. NASA
“NASA should be focused primarily on deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies,” two policy advisers for Trump said in an op-ed for SpaceNews. "Human exploration of our entire Solar System by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal."
This is potentially terrible; NASA leads the field in much climate research, and moving away from that could be detrimental. However, it should be noted that some of these projects might be transferred to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), rather than being scrapped.
Indeed, in March last year, Republican Ted Cruz called on NASA to focus more on space and less on Earth. “We can’t go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center [in Florida] goes underwater,” Bolden responded.
This may be coupled with an increased commercialization of space exploration, the groundwork for which was largely begun by President Obama’s administration. In the next two years, two privately-built manned spacecraft – SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner – will fly for the first time, having received significant funding from NASA.
“I think there would be ample opportunity for public-private partnerships in the space program,” Trump said in an interview with SpaceNews back in October.
New administrations can also bring about a rethink in NASA’s long-term goals. The Obama administration in 2009 scrapped the Constellation program from the Bush-era, which was looking at returning to the Moon, and instead focused on Mars. This has involved developing the huge new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, expected to fly for the first time in the next few years, and the Orion spacecraft – which has a bit of an uncertain future at the moment.
NASA is currently focused on getting humans to Mars. Pat Rawlings/NASA
Whether a new administration will continue this focus on Mars, or aim for more short-term goals like a return to the Moon, remains to be seen. Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told The Verge she thought there could be drastic changes once again, though.
Of course, NASA isn’t just about manned exploration. It is heavily involved in aircraft research, planetary science, astronomy, and more. What the state of these others sectors will be isn’t clear.
Funding as a whole looks like it might stay the same, though, and Trump does seem to be keen on keeping NASA at the forefront of space exploration. “Honestly I think NASA is wonderful!” Trump said in an AMA on Reddit back in July. “America has always led the world in space exploration.”
The lack of Earth science, though, will be a big loss.