Where Will President-Elect Trump Take American Space Endeavours?

With the 2016 election now finished and Donald Trump confirmed as the president-elect of the United States, there are naturally some concerns about what this could means for the future of NASA. Given the administration’s commitment to Earth science, and its plans for crewed missions to near-Earth Orbit and Mars, there is understandably some worry that the budget environment might be changing soon.

At this juncture, it is not quite clear how a Trump presidency will affect NASA’s mandate for space exploration and scientific research. But between statements made by the president-elect in the past, and his stances on issues like climate change, it seems clear that funding for certain types of research could be threatened. But there is also reason to believe that larger exploration programs might be unaffected.

Back in September, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016. This bill granted $19.5 billion in funding for NASA for fiscal year 2017, thus ensuring that NASA’s proposed activities would not be affected by the transition in power. Central to this bill was the continued funding of operations that NASA considered to be central to its “Journey to Mars“.

Looking forward, it is unclear how the new administration will affect NASA's plans for space exploration. Credit: NASA/AESP
Looking forward, it is unclear how the new administration will affect NASA’s plans for space exploration. Credit: NASA/AESP

Beyond FY 2017, though, the picture is unclear. When it comes to things like NASA’s Earth Science program, the administration of a president that denies the existence of Climate Change is expected to mean budget cuts. For instance, back in May, Trump laid out his vision for an energy policy. Central to this was a focus on oil, natural gas and coal, the cancellation of the Paris Agreement, and the cessations of all payments to the UN Green Climate Fund.

This could signal a possible reverse of policies initiated by the Obama administration, which increased funding for Earth science research by about 50 percent. And as NASA indicated in a report issued on Nov. 2nd by the Office of the Inspect General – titled “NASA’s Earth Science Mission Portfolio” – this has resulted in some very favorable developments.

Foremost among these has been the increased in the number of products delivered to users by NASA, going from 8.14 million in 2000 to 1.42 billion in 2015. In other words, usage of NASA resources has increased by a factor of 175, and in the space of just 15 years (much of that in the last 8). Another major benefit has been the chance for collaboration and lucrative partnerships. From the report:

“Government agencies, scientists, private entities, and other stakeholders rely on NASA to process raw information received from Earth observation systems into useable data. Moreover, NASA’s Earth observation data is routinely used by government agencies, policy makers, and researchers to expand understanding of the Earth system and to enhance economic competitiveness, protect life and property, and develop policies to help protect the planet. Finally, NASA is working to address suggestions that it use commercially provided data to augment its Earth observation data. However, NASA must reconcile its policy that promotes open sharing of data at minimal cost to users with a commercial business model under which fees may create a barrier to use.”
Much of NASA's research into Climate Change takes place through the Earth Sciences Directorate. Credit: NASA
Much of NASA’s research into Climate Change takes place through the Earth Science division of the Mission Directorate. Credit: NASA

Unfortunately, it has been this same increase in funding that prompted Congressional Republicans, in the name of fiscal responsibility, to demand changes and new standards. These sentiments were voiced back in March of 2015 during NASA’s budget request for 2016. As Senator Ted Cruz – currently one of the Trump campaign’s backers – said at the time:

“We’ve seen a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds going to the earth sciences program at the expense of funding for exploration and space operations, planetary sciences, heliophysics, and astrophysics, which I believe are all rooted in exploration and should be central to NASA’s core mission. We need to get back to the hard sciences, to manned space exploration, and to the innovation that has been integral to NASA.

While Trump himself has little to say about space during his long campaign, his team did manage to recruit Robert Walker – a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania – this past October to draft a policy for them. In an op-ed to SpaceNews in late October, he echoed Cruz’s sentiments about cutting back on Earth sciences to focus on space exploration:

“NASA should be focused primarily on deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies. Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal. Developing the technologies to meet that goal would severely challenge our present knowledge base, but that should be a reason for exploration and science.”

“It makes little sense for numerous launch vehicles to be developed at taxpayer cost, all with essentially the same technology and payload capacity. Coordinated policy would end such duplication of effort and quickly determine where there are private sector solutions that do not necessarily require government investment.

NASA's Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

Next, there is the issue of NASA’s long-term goals, which (as noted) seem more secure for the time being. In May of 2016, Trump was issued the Aerospace America Questionnaire – a series of ten questions issued by NASA to determine the stances of the candidates on space exploration. On the subject of a crewed mission to Mars in the future, Trump’s campaign indicated that things would depend upon the state of the country’s economy:

“A lot of what my administration would recommend depends on our economic state. If we are growing with all of our people employed and our military readiness back to acceptable levels, then we can take a look at the timeline for sending more people into space.

However, they also professed an admiration for NASA and a commitment to its overall goal:

“NASA has been one of the most important agencies in the United States government for most of my lifetime. It should remain so. NASA should focus on stretching the envelope of space exploration for we have so much to discover and to date we have only scratched the surface.”

From all of this, a general picture of what NASA’s budget environment will look like in the near future begins to emerge. In all likelihood, the Earth Science division (and other parts of NASA) are likely to find their budgets being scrutinized based on newly-developed criteria. Essentially, unless it benefits space exploration and research beyond Earth, it’s not likely to see continued funding.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: NASA
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: NASA

But regardless of the results of the election, it appears at this juncture that NASA is looking forward with cautious optimism. Addressing the future, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued an internal memo on Wednesday, Nov. 9th. Titled “Reaching for New Heights in 2017 and Beyond“, Bolden expressed positive thoughts about the transition of power and what it would mean:

“In times when there has been much news about all the things that divide our nation, there has been noticeable bipartisan support for this work, our work – support that not only reaches across the aisle, but across the public, private, academic and non-profit sectors.

“For this reason, I think we can all be confident that the new Trump Administration and future administrations after that will continue the visionary course on which President Barack Obama has set us, a course that all of you have made possible.”

For NASA’s sake, I hope Bolden’s words prove to be prophetic. For no matter who holds of the office of the President of the United States, the American people – and indeed, all the world’s people – depend upon the continued efforts of NASA. As the leader in space exploration, their presence is essential to humanity’s return to space!

Further Reading: Planetary Society

President Obama Puts US All In For Mars

In the waning days of his presidency, Barack Obama has made a bold statement in favor of the US getting to Mars. Obama didn’t mince any words in his opinion piece written for CNN. He said that America’s next goal in space is “…sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

President Obama has long been a proponent of a strong presence in space for the US, and of the science and technology that supports those efforts. He has argued for healthy NASA budgets in his time, and under his administration, NASA has reached some major milestones.

“Last year alone, NASA discovered flowing water on Mars and evidence of ice on one of Jupiter’s moons, and we mapped Pluto — more than 3 billion miles away — in high-resolution,” Obama said. He also mentioned the ongoing successful hunt for exoplanets, and the efforts to understand asteroids.

Some of his work in support of space and science in general has been more symbolic. His annual White House Science Fairs in particular. He was the first president to hold these fairs, and he hosted 6 of them during his 8 years in office.

Presidents go different directions once they leave office. Some keep a low profile (Bush Jr.), some get targeted for assassination (Bush Sr.), and some become advocates for humanitarian efforts and global peace (Jimmy Carter.) But Obama made it clear that his efforts to promote America’s efforts in space won’t end when his presidency ends. “This week, we’ll convene some of America’s leading scientists, engineers, innovators and students in Pittsburgh to dream up ways to build on our progress and find the next frontiers,” Obama said.

In his piece, Obama gave a laundry list of the USA’s achievements in space. He also pointed out that “Just five years ago, US companies were shut out of the global commercial launch market.” Now they own a third of that market. And, according to Obama, they won’t stop there.

In 2010 he set a goal for American space efforts: to reach Mars by the 2030s. “The next step is to reach beyond the bounds of Earth’s orbit. I’m excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.” He didn’t elaborate on this in his opinion piece, but it will be interesting to hear more.

Other presidents have come out strongly in favor of efforts in space. The first one was Eisenhower, and Obama mentioned him in his piece. Eisenhower is the one who created NASA in 1958, though it was called NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) at the time. This put America’s space efforts in civilian control rather than military.

President Kennedy got the Apollo program off the ground in 1961. Image: White House Press Office (WHPO)
President Kennedy got the Apollo program off the ground in 1961. Image: White House Press Office (WHPO)

President Kennedy asked Congress in 1961 to commit to the Apollo program, an effort to get a man on the Moon before the 60s ended. Apollo achieved that, of course, but with only a few months to spare. Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, was a staunch supporter of NASA’s Apollo Program, especially in the wake of disaster.

In 1967 the entire Apollo 1 crew was killed in a fire while testing the craft on its launch pad. The press erupted after that, and Congress began to question the Apollo Program, but Johnson stood firmly in NASA’s corner.

Like some other Presidents before him, Obama has always been a good orator. That was in full view when he ended his piece with these words: “Someday, I hope to hoist my own grandchildren onto my shoulders. We’ll still look to the stars in wonder, as humans have since the beginning of time.”

The focus has really been on Mars lately, and with Obama’s continued support, maybe humans will make it to Mars in the next decade or two. Then, from the surface of that planet, we can do what we’ve always done: continue to look to the stars with a sense of wonder.

President Obama Salutes NASA, Astronaut Kelly, and 1 Year ISS Mission at State of the Union Address

President Obama gave a shout out to NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly and his upcoming 1 year mission to the International Space Station at the 2015 State of the Union address to the US Congress on Tuesday evening, Jan. 20, 2015.

Obama wished Kelly (pictured above in the blue jacket) good luck during his address and told him to send some photos from the ISS via Instagram. Kelly was seated with the First Lady, Michelle Obama, during the speech on Capitol Hill.

The TV cameras focused on Kelly and he was given a standing ovation by the Congress and the President.

Obama also praised Kelly’s flight and the recent Dec. 5, 2014, launch of NASA’s Orion deep space capsule as “part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars.”

Watch this video of President Obama hailing NASA and Scott Kelly:



Video Caption: President Obama recognizes NASA and Astronaut Scott Kelly at 2015 State of the Union Address. Credit: Congress/NASA

Here’s a transcript of President Obama’s words about NASA, Orion, and Scott Kelly’s 1 Year ISS mission:

“Pushing out into the Solar System not just to visit, but to stay. Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars. In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. Good luck, Captain and make sure to Instagram it.”

In late March, Astronaut Scott Kelly will launch to the International Space Station and become the first American to live and work aboard the orbiting laboratory for a year-long mission.

Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, both veteran spacefliers, comprise the two members of the 1 Year Mission crew.

Normal ISS stays last for about a six month duration.

NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko comprise  the first ever ISS 1 Year Crew
NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko comprise the first ever ISS 1 Year Crew

No American has ever spent anywhere near a year in space. 4 Russian cosmonauts conducted long duration stays of about a year or more in space aboard the Mir Space Station in the 1980s and 1990s.

Together with Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, Kelly and Kornienko will launch on a Russian Soyuz capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome as part of Expedition 44.

Kelly and Kornienko will stay aboard the ISS until March 2016.

They will conduct hundreds of science experiments focusing on at least 7 broad areas of investigation including medical, psychological, and biomedical challenges faced by astronauts during long-duration space flight.

During the 2015 State of the Union Address on Jan 20, President Obama lauds NASA’s Orion Spacecraft and our "re-energized space program."  Credit: NASA
During the 2015 State of the Union Address on Jan 20, President Obama lauds NASA’s Orion Spacecraft and our “re-energized space program.” Credit: NASA

Kelly was just featured in a cover story at Time magazine.

Here’s an online link to the Time magazine story : http://ti.me/1w25Qgo

@TIME features @StationCDRKelly ‘s 1-year-long mission in it’s 2015: Year Ahead issue. http://ti.me/1w25Qgo
@TIME features @StationCDRKelly ‘s 1-year-long mission in its 2015: Year Ahead issue. http://ti.me/1w25Qgo

Orion flew a flawless inaugural test flight when it thundered to space on Dec. 5, 2014, atop the fiery fury of a 242 foot tall United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket – the world’s most powerful booster – from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Orion launched on its two orbit, 4.5 hour flight maiden test flight on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission that carried the capsule farther away from Earth than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has traveled in more than four decades.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Kelly’s flight will pave the way for NASA’s goal to send astronaut crews to Mars by the 2030s. They will launch in the Orion crew vehicle atop the agency’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, simultaneously under development.

Good luck to Kelly and Kornienko!!

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Obama: This is a ‘Capture the Flag’ Moment for Commercial Spaceflight

President Barack Obama called out for pizza today and ending up talking with the crews of STS-135 and Expedition 28 on the International Space Station. Well, that was his story anyway, but he did talk with the crews, offering a challenge for commercial space companies, as well as remembering the first flight of cooperation between the US and the Soviet Union – the Apollo-Soyuz test project which launched 36 years ago today — and reiterating the challenge of sending humans to Mars.

The STS-135 crew brought a flag that was flown on STS-1, the first shuttle mission, up to the ISS. “We’ll present the flag to the space station crew and it will hopefully maintain a position of honor until the next vehicle launched from US soil brings US astronauts up to dock with the space station,” STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson told the president.

“And I understand this is going to be sort of like a capture the flag moment for commercial space flight, so good luck to whoever grabs that flag,” Obama said.
Continue reading “Obama: This is a ‘Capture the Flag’ Moment for Commercial Spaceflight”