The Future of NASA

Published: March 01, 2017

NASAPresident Trump

Talks of going to the moon and centralizing NASA on economic growth are just some of the priorities expected to come of this administration for the agency.

Not much has been spoken of the space agency within the new administration. Without the nomination of an administrator or an outline of a budget (as of March 1, 2017), it is hard to gather just what the administration wants establish with NASA.

Regardless, taking a closer look at what the president’s advisers have thus far mentioned and the advice of past NASA personnel, we have a hazy crystal ball into the future of the country’s space mission agency.

Internal documents from the Trump administration obtained by Politico suggest the president and his team want to focus NASA on the “large-scale economic development of space.” In other words, economic growth, particularly in private industry, will be making its way to the top of NASA’s list.

What about the moon, mars, earth-centric science and all the other cool orbital stuff that defines NASA?

Returning to the Moon

Since the cancelation of the Constellation program by Barack Obama in 2009, thoughts of returning to the moon any time soon have dwindled -- until now. According to those internal documents, the Trump administration wants to see missions to the moon in three years, by 2020. However, those new moon landings and orbits will be done by private U.S. astronauts using private space ships. These missions will be selected through internal competitions between NASA’s traditional contractors, more recently referred to as “Old Space,” and businesses such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, dubbed as “New Space.”

Another indication of the returning to the moon lies with Trump’s rumored candidate for NASA Administrator, Representative Jim Bridenstine.  The congressman representing Oklahoma has military and private experience in aerospace and defense contracting. According to a recent blog, Bridenstine sees returning to the moon as the first step to deep space exploration, economically advantageous to the U.S. and vital to American defense. As he puts it, returning to the moon will make “America the preeminent spacefaring nation.”

Privatizing U.S. Space Efforts

Another priority depicted by those internal documents would be to privatize low-Earth orbit. Except for military and intelligence satellites, government-owned and operated satellites and stations may shift to privately owned entities.

These commercial space partnerships would be seen as increasing U.S. jobs in the private sector and making aggressive and competitive business and technological advances in space – attributes that typically define the president and his campaign pledges and risks that a public sector organization typically cannot make.  

"This may be the biggest and most public privatization effort America has ever conducted," those documents are cited as saying.

Earth Science

According to an Op-ed on space policy released by senior policy advisers to Trump during the campaign, “NASA should be focused primarily on deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies.”

It is no secret that the Trump administration typically undervalues studies on climate change and environmental conditions on Earth versus other mission-related goals throughout the federal government. The Op-ed is cited as stating that NASA has focused too much on “politically correct environmental monitoring.”

However, according to a recent report by Wired, Greg Autry and Erik Noble have been picked as presidential liaisons between the White House and space agency.  In particular, Noble has done extensive work as an atmospheric scientist for NASA performing climate and weather prediction studies. This appointment signals a positive sign for the earth science sector of NASA but all pathways still seem to suggest that there could be a strong shift away from the growth of scientific research within the agency.

Mars

Under the Obama administration, NASA was instructed to place people on Mars by the 2030s and that priority does not seem to be changing under the Trump administration, particularly if Congress has a say in it. In fact, the Senate passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 on February 17 which explicitly states that “Mars is the appropriate long-term goal for the human space flight program.” Moreover, the pending legislation outlines a roadmap for the space agency to focus on early planning and decisions to be applied to the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars. In fact, according to a testimony on February 16 in front of the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology, former Chief Data Scientist at NASA, Dr. Ellen Stofan confirms that “NASA has a sustainable plan to get humans to Mars orbit by 2032, and land thereafter” as long as consistency in leadership, policy and resources stay intact.  

What Next?

Despite all of these details, it is still hard to say where NASA is placed on the administration’s priority scale. During his inaugural address, President Trump stated that America is “ready to unlock the mysteries of space.“ The space industry can find comfort in knowing that with economic growth at the forefront of the new administration and NASA, more opportunity and money will be rolling in that direction. Nevertheless, with the proposed $54 billion increase in military spending and the suggestion that the same amount is cut from non-national security federal agencies, NASA will most likely see its 2017 budget of $19 billion shrink. Additionally, a reallocation of funds within the agency can be expected from scientific research to space exploration and the growth of public-private partnerships.