Trump of­fers bold space goals, fills in few de­tails

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

The White House has cham­pi­oned a new era of US lead­er­ship in space, but its as­pi­ra­tions are com­pli­cated by tight bud­gets, va­can­cies in top posts and the ris­ing role of pri­vate in­dus­try in aerospace in­no­va­tion, ex­perts say. Dur­ing a speech Thurs­day at NASA’s Kennedy Space Cen­ter, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence de­lighted hun­dreds of space agency em­ploy­ees and con­trac­tors by pledg­ing that “un­der Pres­i­dent Trump, we will achieve more in space than we ever thought pos­si­ble,” in­clud­ing a “re­turn to the Moon” and “Amer­i­can boots on the face of Mars.”

But as the flag-wav­ing en­thu­si­asm faded, some were left won­der­ing what ex­actly Pence meant. “‘Moon’ could mean any­thing-com­mer­cial, ro­botic, in­ter­na­tional or oth­er­wise,” said Phil Lar­son, a White House space ad­viser un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and for­merly an of­fi­cial with pri­vately owned SpaceX. Lar­son de­scribed a se­ries of re­cent spacethemed ora­tions by Pence as “no cake, just ic­ing.” John Logs­don, for­mer head of the Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity Space Policy Institute, agreed. “I think (Thurs­day’s) speech was, of course, short on sub­stance be­cause there is no sub­stance,” Logs­don said.

No one in top slots

Some are skep­ti­cal of the White House’s soar­ing rhetoric be­cause cru­cial lead­er­ship po­si­tions re­main un­filled. For in­stance, the US space agency set a du­bi­ous record on the Fourth of July: the long­est span of time that a newly elected pres­i­dent has gone without nam­ing a new NASA chief. The pre­vi­ous record was a 164-day stretch in 1971 un­der Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon.

NASA is cur­rently headed by an “act­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor”-en­gi­neer Robert Light­foot, who took over when for­mer as­tro­naut Charles Bolden, an Obama ap­pointee, stepped down. Also empty is the chief of the White House’s Of­fice of Science and Tech­nol­ogy and Policy, once a key player in craft­ing NASA’s agenda.

It is com­mon for in­com­ing pres­i­dents to re­view their pre­de­ces­sor’s space plans and is­sue a course cor­rec­tion early on. Al­though Trump may be late in the process, “he has now cre­ated a mech­a­nism for tak­ing a look at the cur­rent pro­gram,” Logs­don ex­plained. That mech­a­nism is the re­vival of the Na­tional Space Coun­cil-an­nounced last month ac­com­pa­nied by an ex­ter­nal advisory group of in­dus­try ex­perts.

Pence, a long-time space en­thu­si­ast, is head­ing the Na­tional Space Coun­cil, now in its third it­er­a­tion after last shut­ting down in 1993. The coun­cil aims to guide space policy by in­clud­ing the sec­re­taries of state, de­fense, com­merce, trans­porta­tion and home­land se­cu­rity, along with in­tel­li­gence and mil­i­tary lead­ers and the NASA chief. The coun­cil will hold its first meet­ing be­fore sum­mer is out, Pence said.

Fol­low the money

After that, the dol­lars al­lo­cated to NASA-and the projects they fund-will tell much of the story. “Any big changes are likely to come next year,” Logs­don said. Trump’s pro­posed bud­get for NASA-which has yet to be ham­mered out by law­mak­ers-called for $19.1 bil­lion in spend­ing, a 0.8 per­cent cut from the pre­vi­ous year. The pro­posal can­celed plans to drag a small as­ter­oid into or­bit around the Moon, where as­tro­nauts could study it at length; it also erased sev­eral Earth science mis­sions and axed a NASA education of­fice-but it laid out no new vi­sions. The next bud­get for NASA is to be un­veiled in Fe­bru­ary 2018. “Every­body is wait­ing, every­body is im­pa­tient in the space com­mu­nity,” said Logs­don.

How big a pri­vate role?

On one side are cham­pi­ons of the old way of do­ing busi­ness, whereby NASA over­saw the build­ing of rock­ets and space­ships, paid for by lu­cra­tive US gov­ern­ment con­tracts. A modern-day ex­am­ple is aerospace gi­ant Lock­heed Martin be­ing paid bil­lions by the US gov­ern­ment to con­struct NASA’s Orion deep-space cap­sule, which may one day carry hu­mans to Mars. On the other side is the bur­geon­ing pri­vate space in­dus­try, with play­ers like SpaceX and Boe­ing build­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of space­ships to ferry as­tro­nauts to low-Earth or­bit and the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. — AFP

FLORIDA, United States: US Vice Pes­i­dent Mike Pence (cen­ter) in­spects an Orion space­craft model as Kennedy Space Cen­ter Deputy Di­rec­tor Janet Petro (left) and Kennedy Space Cen­ter Di­rec­tor Robert Ca­bana (right) watch dur­ing a tour of the Op­er­a­tions and Check­out Build­ing at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter, Florida on July 6, 2017. — AFP

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