Trump’s new plans for NASA

What the US pres­i­dent's plans for the space agency mean for space ex­plo­ration

All About Space - - Contents - Writ­ten by David Crookes

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump picked up his pen in the Roo­sevelt room of the White House and, with typ­i­cal fan­fare, signed his name on the bottom of an im­por­tant doc­u­ment lay­ing out new pol­icy de­tails for NASA. It was, he said, “ex­actly 45 years ago, al­most to the minute” that Jack Sch­mitt be­came one of the last Amer­i­cans to land on the Moon. “Today,” he con­tin­ued, “we pledge that he will not be the last.”

As he fin­ished his speech and showed off his signed pa­per to the assem­bly, the fo­cus was once more placed on hu­man space ex­plo­ration and an­other long-awaited trip to the lu­nar sur­face. “This time,” Pres­i­dent Trump said, “we will not only plant our flag and leave our foot­print, we will es­tab­lish a foun­da­tion for an even­tual mis­sion to Mars, and per­haps some day to many other worlds be­yond.”

It was, in some sense, a re­tread­ing of past am­bi­tions. In 1989, to mark the 20th an­niver­sary of the first Moon land­ing, Apollo 11, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush an­nounced the Space Ex­plo­ration Ini­tia­tive, call­ing for hu­mans to be sent to the Moon and for as­tro­nauts to explore Mars. 15 years later his son, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, pressed for a re­turn to the Moon by 2020, while Pres­i­dent Barack Obama sought a 2030 mis­sion to Mars when he was elected to the high­est of­fice.

A de­sire to put Amer­i­can boot's back on our nat­u­ral satel­lite is just one of a raft of poli­cies de­vised by the White House ad­min­is­tra­tion..

In­deed, Space Pol­icy Di­rec­tive 1 and the sub­se­quent

“Peo­ple can re­late to the idea of a man on the Moon more so than a rover on Mars”

Alan Stein­berg

Fis­cal Year 2019 agency bud­get maps a fresh, fu­ture di­rec­tion for the US space agency while de­ter­min­ing how NASA's bud­get will be spent over the com­ing years.

They also for­malise the sug­ges­tions put for­ward by the newly re­in­stated Na­tional Space Coun­cil, headed by Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence. In that con­text, land­ing an astro­naut on the Moon again could be seen as merely a head­line, al­beit a very im­por­tant one. “Hu­man space­flight is of­ten eas­ier for peo­ple to con­nect to,” ex­plains Alan Stein­berg, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Rice Univer­sity and an ex­pert on NASA pol­icy. “Peo­ple can re­late to the idea of a man on the Moon more so than a rover on Mars.”

Such a di­rec­tion, he con­tin­ues, lends an el­e­ment of pres­tige, even though Stein­berg be­lieves it could be viewed as an easy vic­tory. “The re­fo­cus on hu­man ex­plo­ration is also likely a po­lit­i­cal move: Amer­ica is send­ing peo­ple into space and not just Rus­sia and China,” he says.

The Pres­i­den­tial Mem­o­ran­dum on Rein­vig­o­rat­ing Amer­ica's Hu­man Space Ex­plo­ration Pro­gram, to give it its full ti­tle, re­placed a sin­gle para­graph in the 2010 Na­tional Space Pol­icy guide­lines. It scrapped the plan to send hu­mans to an as­ter­oid by 2025 and it re­moved the mid-2030s time­line for send­ing hu­mans to or­bit Mars. In its place was the di­rec­tive to go be­yond low-Earth or­bit, with the Moon the first des­ti­na­tion, and it spoke of us­ing “com­mer­cial and in­ter­na­tional part­ners to en­able hu­man ex­pan­sion across the So­lar Sys­tem.”

Few are sur­prised that the As­ter­oid Re­di­rect Mis­sion, in­tro­duced in 2013, is not be­ing con­tin­ued – it was given notice of de­fund­ing last April. De­vised in or­der to send a robotic crew to a near-Earth as­ter­oid, grab a rock from it and re­di­rect it to a sta­ble or­bit around the Moon, the idea was to al­low as­tro­nauts to use that rock in the 2020s as a test­ing ground in prepa­ra­tion for a Mars mis­sion. Yet, ac­cord­ing to Casey Dreier, di­rec­tor of space pol­icy for The Plan­e­tary So­ci­ety, it was never pop­u­lar with congress, or the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity.

“It was an ex­am­ple of a pro­gram be­ing rolled out with­out a lot of ground­work be­ing done to get a ton of sup­port for it,” he tells us. “It never re­ally got a lot of peo­ple ex­cited and not that much had been done to ad­vance the project, which I guess kind of tells you what the in­ter­nal opin­ion was about how suc­cess­ful it was go­ing to be.” The sig­nif­i­cance of fi­nally scrap­ping it, how­ever, is that the of­fi­cial US pol­icy – for as­tro­nauts to explore as­teroids – is now no longer a pri­or­ity.

Dreier says it will have “trickle-down im­pli­ca­tions for the en­tire gov­ern­ment and pri­vate space sec­tor” be­cause all of their ef­forts will now be on lu­nar ex­plo­ration. This, in turn, will have im­pli­ca­tions for an­other as­pect of NASA: the main­te­nance of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS). “NASA only has the money to af­ford to carry out one hu­man space­flight pro­gram re­ally well,” Dreier says. As such, Pres­i­dent Trump wants to end US fund­ing for the ISS by 2025.

“The Pres­i­dent wants to turn over the role of pro­vid­ing low-Earth or­bit mi­cro­grav­ity re­search ca­pa­bil­ity to the pri­vate sec­tor,” ex­plains Frank Slazer, vice pres­i­dent of Space Sys­tems at the Aero­space In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion. In­deed, the 2019 bud­get pro­posal in­cludes $150 mil­lion to “en­cour­age com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment” on the space sta­tion so that NASA ends up re­ly­ing on pri­vate part­ners.

How­ever, the plan has run into re­sis­tance. Demo­cratic Sen­a­tor Bill Nel­son sug­gests the White House will have a “fight on its hands” and even the aero­space in­dus­try is op­pos­ing the move.

“In my view it’s pre­ma­ture to defini­tively plan to stop fund­ing the ISS since this could have a chill­ing ef­fect on com­mer­cial re­searchers in the near term who may see the fu­ture avail­abil­ity of a re­search plat­form to be un­cer­tain,” Slazer tells us. “These com­mer­cial re­searchers are key to any fu­ture com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of low-Earth or­bit, so dis­cour­ag­ing them could be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.”

Slazer is also con­cerned about how the US would en­gage with its in­ter­na­tional part­ners. “I think fully pri­vatis­ing the US part of the ISS would be very prob­lem­atic since we have com­mit­ments to pro­vide re­sources such as power and ther­mal man­age­ment to our in­ter­na­tional part­ners – in fact, when a nonRus­sian astro­naut goes to the ISS, its paid for by NASA. Ad­di­tion­ally, the ISS has a wide range of gov­ern­ment re­search func­tions such as astro­physics re­search for which no com­mer­cial mar­ket ex­ists.”

The ISS is by no means the only NASA project or mis­sion neg­a­tively af­fected by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion's pro­posed change of di­rec­tion for NASA. The bud­get for 2019 is $19.6 bil­lion, up $500 mil­lion or 2.6 per cent on 2018, and, of that, $10 bil­lion will sup­port hu­man space ex­plo­ration. Yet, as Dreier points out, that's a small boost for hu­man­based mis­sions: “At best, maybe a 10 per cent bump up in terms of that pro­gram's bud­get.”

To pay for that, how­ever, it ap­pears cuts are be­ing made in nu­mer­ous ar­eas. There will be a

pro­posed tran­si­tion away from NASA's cur­rent gov­ern­ment-owned and op­er­ated fleet of com­mu­ni­ca­tions satellites and as­so­ci­ated ground sta­tions in favour of com­mer­cial ca­pa­bil­i­ties, while de­vel­op­ment of the WideField In­frared Sur­vey Tele­scope (WFIRST) is also set to be axed.

WFIRST was due to launch some time in the mid-2020s. More pow­er­ful than the Hub­ble Tele­scope, it was de­signed to search for and study plan­ets around other stars and let NASA study the biosig­na­tures of those dis­tant bod­ies – some­thing which could point to the po­ten­tial of life. Pres­i­dent Trump's ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves the $8.8 bil­lion James Webb Space Tele­scope – which it will con­tinue to fund – makes WFIRST un­nec­es­sary and that a sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing in­crease would oth­er­wise be needed, but many as­tronomers beg to dif­fer.

In­deed, David Spergel, a physi­cist at Prince­ton Univer­sity and co-chair of the WFIRST sci­ence team, tweeted: “Aban­don­ing WFIRST is aban­don­ing US lead­er­ship in dark en­ergy and ex­o­plan­ets.” He also said keep­ing WFIRST would help to ad­dress big ques­tions such as “what is driv­ing the ac­cel­er­a­tion of the uni­verse, what are the prop­er­ties of ex­o­planet at­mos­pheres, how did our gal­axy and its neigh­bours form and evolve and what de­ter­mines the ar­chi­tec­ture of ex­o­plan­ets?” He urges the as­tron­omy com­mu­nity to “push back,” and oth­ers ap­pear to agree that they should.

“WFIRST will help as­tronomers un­der­stand dark en­ergy bet­ter and work has al­ready be­gun on it,” Dreier tells us. “The bud­get pro­posal is ex­plic­itly say­ing, 'look, we have to put money into hu­man ex­plo­ration and so we took it out of the sci­ence mis­sion' and that is an un­forced er­ror in my opin­ion in terms of pri­ori­ti­sa­tion. This is a clear high-pri­or­ity mis­sion that would teach us some­thing new about the uni­verse.”

Mean­while, NASA's Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion and five Earth-sci­ence mis­sions are also due to be ter­mi­nated. This would lead to the loss of the Ra­di­a­tion Bud­get In­stru­ment; the Plank­ton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosys­tem (PACE) satel­lite mis­sion; the Or­bit­ing Car­bon Ob­ser­va­tory-3 ex­per­i­ment; the Deep Space Cli­mate Ob­ser­va­tory Earth-view­ing in­stru­ments and the Cli­mate Ab­so­lute Ra­di­ance and Re­frac­tiv­ity Ob­ser­va­tory Pathfinder.

“It is dis­turb­ing that NASA fund­ing is be­ing cut for Earth-sci­ence mis­sions,” laments Pro­fes­sor Sid­ney Hem­ming of the La­mont-Do­herty Earth Ob­ser­va­tory at Columbia Univer­sity. “In gen­eral the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing lev­els of gov­ern­ment fund­ing for Earth sciences is very con­cern­ing. It is lead­ing to prob­lems main­tain­ing the ca­reers of re­searchers, and it will lead to los­ing stu­dents in STEM fields.”

She tells us that the cuts are “di­rect hits on cli­mate change re­search and con­sis­tent with what we've been hear­ing about this ad­min­is­tra­tion's dis­taste for such stud­ies.” The bud­get pro­posal, how­ever, says it will lead to a fo­cused and bal­anced Earth-sci­ence pro­gram, ben­e­fit­ing to the tune of

$1.8 bil­lion, which will be used to main­tain the United States' “45-year record of space-based land im­agery by fund­ing Land­sat 9 and a Sus­tain­able Land Imag­ing pro­gram.”

It is un­likely that pri­vate en­ter­prises will step in to work on projects such as those since their at­ten­tion will be fo­cused on more prof­itable mis­sions. Ques­tions are there­fore be­ing asked about what com­pa­nies can get out of the Moon – “maybe you can get wa­ter out of the sur­face and get rocket fuel out of it,” Dreier sug­gests – and whether it's worth the trade-off.

There does ap­pear to be a re­cent scram­ble to work on the lu­nar sur­face. China has suc­cess­fully sent three robotic lan­ders over the past ten years, and the Space Act of 2015, passed un­der Pres­i­dent Obama's watch, paved the way for min­ing on other worlds in what was seen as a chal­lenge for the in­ter­na­tional treaty on outer space.

“I per­son­ally don’t un­der­stand the sci­en­tific value of Moon first,” says Stein­berg, “but I can see the po­lit­i­cal value as it likely res­onates with the av­er­age per­son bet­ter to think about peo­ple on the Moon ver­sus peo­ple on as­teroids.” He also points out that we are at a time when there are no ac­tive as­tro­nauts who have set foot on the Moon. “With other coun­tries tar­get­ing the Moon this is both an is­sue of pres­tige as well as ar­guably a tech­no­log­i­cal step­ping stone,” he tells us.

“Do­ing it with pri­vate sec­tor part­ners is a way to pos­si­bly do it cheaper and in­volve the com­mer­cial space world more. If space will ever be some­thing for peo­ple like you and me to explore there needs to be more com­mer­cial en­deav­ours, and that means bring­ing in the pri­vate sec­tor to be in­volved.”

As al­ways, though, the NASA plans are more about re­align­ing what the space agency should be do­ing with the re­sources it has rather than new di­rec­tives with new fund­ing. “I also think the fact that NASA will get a mod­est in­crease in its bud­get shows a very sup­port­ive ad­min­is­tra­tion broad­band, and that's a good thing,” Dreier tells us. “But I think ul­ti­mately there are enough re­sources to do a lot of these with­out hav­ing to pick and choose.”

Pres­i­dent Trump has spo­ken of his de­sire for Amer­ica to leave more than just a foot­print on the Moon

The pro­pos­als will keep the SLS and Orion on track for a test launch by 2020 and crewed mis­sions around the Moon by 2023

Ivanka Trump han­dles a sam­ple of the Moon

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed the Space Pol­icy Di­rec­tive 1 on 11 De­cem­ber 2017

The bud­get pro­poses a $150 mil­lion plan­e­tary de­fense pro­gram to pro­tect Earth from as­teroids

The pro­posal seeks to pro­vide $3.7 bil­lion for the Space Launch Sys­tem and Orion crew cap­sule

The Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion, which costs $100 mil­lion and seeks to at­tract and re­tain STEM stu­dents and en­gage Amer­i­cans in NASA mis­sions, is be­ing axed

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