By Kendra R Chamberlain
Many aspects of governance — from budget approvals to new leaders for federal agencies — are still up in the air for the US’s space programs and agencies, only days away from the new administration taking control.
Unease has been growing about the future of US space and satellite programs under the new Trump administration. President-elect Donald Trump will be sworn into office Friday at the strike of noon — which will also signal an end of term for all of sitting president Barack Obama’s political appointees (except those who have been asked by Trump’s team to stay on).
Among those set to step down are NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Dava Newman — and neither of which have replacements as of yet. Rumor has it Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is a top candidate for NASA Administrator, but is also rumored to be a top candidate for Secretary of the Air Force.
As for NOAA, Trump’s team has made almost zero statements about the agency or who will head it once Trump comes into power. For the Secretary of Commerce position — the department under which NOAA lives — Trump has nominated Wilbur Ross, Jr. His confirmation hearing is expected to take place this week. Ross is a billionaire, investor and former banker, but hasn’t spoken publicly about his views on or plans for NOAA. NOAA confirmed this week that Benjamin Friedman, NOAA’s Deputy Undersecretary for Operations, will serve as acting NOAA Administrator (replacing Dr. Kathryn Sullivan) once the Trump administration has been sworn on Friday, and until the Trump team names a replacement.
Divining the US space program under Trump
Various members of Trump’s team and incoming administration have voiced enthusiasm for the US’s space program — though Trump himself hasn’t said much of substance on the matter. In July of 2015, astronaut Eileen Collins spoke at the Republican National Convention to argue that the US should re-assert itself as a leader in space exploration. We’d assume her speech was in line with some Republican ideas for NASA, but what that leadership — or that space exploration — may look like is up for debate. And as has become something of a precedent for the Trump administration, his team’s interpretation of those goals won’t necessarily be in line with experts in the field.
Under the Obama administration, sending US astronauts to Mars became a central thesis of NASA’s space exploration. In 2014, NASA initiated what it called the beginning of the Mars Era with the Orion spacecraft and programs focused on sending manned missions to Mars in the 2030s.
But NASA may be forced to do a 180 on its manned space exploration plans. Newt Gingrich, one of Trump’s top advisors, has at different points in his career voiced support for sending more US astronauts to the Moon, and in fact during his brief 2012 presidential bid, he made the case for opening a Moon base one of his campaign promises. And Trump’s list of early picks to serve in the role of NASA administrator included James Bridenstine and Scott Pace, both of whom have called for a return to the Moon. (It should be noted that former president George W. Bush had initiated his own Moon program, called the Constellation program, which Obama shuttered once he took office. Still, NASA has already done a lot of the work needed to begin sending humans back to the Moon, and so to do so would be significantly less expensive than continuing efforts for the Mars program).
Why might the US might prioritize a lunar mission over one to Mars? Look no further than Russia. Russia’s growing space program has spurred the Roscosmos space agency to begin developing a module that could land on the Moon. Russia has invited the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA to help with its design, and is reportedly interested in ultimately building a lunar base on the Moon in the future. In addition, the ESA has voiced interest in sending European astronauts to the Moon, as has China and Japan.
No human has set foot on the Moon since 1972, during the last of NASA’s Apollo missions, and no other country has ever sent any humans to the Moon beside the US. With these foreign powers iterating interest in landing on the Moon, Trump’s team may view an increased US presence on the Moon as a strategic maneuver to maintain its lunar hegemony.
Political (and partisan) motives behind Trump’s Mission to the Moon?
The Trump team’s stance on reinvigorating NASA’s space exploration must be understood in a wider partisan-policy context, one that stands in firm opposition to some of the Earth science and research programs under NASA and NOAA. Trump, along with many members of his team and the political appointees that will make up the incoming administration, have been quite vocal in their rejection of human-caused climate change. This rejection goes so far as to cover not just the climate change policies put in place by the Obama administration: there’s growing evidence that Trump’s team also rejects the conclusions drawn by leaders of scientific communities around the world, namely that climate change is real and is man-made.
In October 2015, two of Trumps space advisors wrote an editorial in the publication SpaceNews that referred to NASA’s Earth science programs as nothing more than “politically correct environmental monitoring.” The two advisors argued that NASA should shed its Earth science programs and focus instead on space exploration. Other Trump team members have suggested NASA’s Earth science programs be moved over to NOAA, the US agency that handles weather and oceanic monitoring, as well as climate monitoring.
But there’s a big problem with shifting NASA’s Earth science programs to NOAA. For one, NASA’s budget is much larger than NOAA’s: NASA received $19.3 billion for FY2016, with 10 percent allocated to Earth science programs. NOAA, on the other hand, received $5.7 billion in FY2016.
Second, there’s no guarantee that if NASA’s climate programs moved to NOAA, their funding would follow. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that NOAA’s already thin financial resources would be further strained. In reality, moving those programs to NOAA without any securing any additional funding would serve as a back-handed way of killing the programs all together.
Both NOAA and NASA are currently funded through continuing resolutions (CRs), which serve as a way to keep government agencies running without Congress having to pass the new fiscal year budget. The CRs will fund NASA and NOAA at FY2016 levels through 18 April 2017. As Marcia Smith, editor of SpacePolicyOnline points out, that means the Trump administration (along with the Republicans’ complete control over Congress) will have control over who gets what, and how much.
NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), along with NASA’s space launch system (SLS) and Orion space programs have already secured funding from the Obama administration for FY2017 — as these programs are considered exceptions to the general activities covered by the CR.
Feature image: A color image of Earth, taken by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), a four megapixel CCD camera and telescope. Image source: NASA