Trump’s new plans for NASA
What the US president's plans for the space agency mean for space exploration
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”
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.”
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