The Most Vulnerable NASA Missions Under Trump

Reading the tea leaves on the president-elect’s space policy

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

About a week before the presidential election, NASA invited reporters to its facility in Greenbelt, Maryland to look at the observatory it hopes to launch in two years, to a point far beyond Hubble’s orbit, where it will continue that telescope’s search for distant stars and galaxies. Charlie Bolden, the head of the space agency, took questions, including one from a reporter for The Guardian, who asked Bolden whether the program was safe, regardless of the election’s outcome.

Bolden cracked up immediately, and the rest of the room followed. He explained that most of the billions of dollars in funding the James Webb Space Telescope received was spent early on in its years-long development. He wasn’t worried now, “but I think anybody would be crazy to tell you that anything survives over a transition."

Bolden, along with many in the room, believed back then what the polls and the pundits did: Donald Trump wasn’t going to be elected president.

A week later, few were laughing. The day after the election, Bolden sent a memo to NASA employees that likely wouldn't have been necessary had the country elected Hillary Clinton. After all, Clinton had vowed to continue the work NASA did under the Obama administration.

“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,” Bolden wrote. Because of that, “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.”

Some projects, like the James Webb Space Telescope, are safer than others under a Trump administration. Webb, an $8.8 billion enterprise, has been in the works for two decades and employs hundreds of people.

Trump, like most presidential candidates, said little about space policy on the campaign trail. Most voters want to hear about the economy, not Europa. “Right now, we have bigger problems—you understand that?” Trump told a 10-year-old boy at a campaign event in New Hampshire last November, when the child asked about NASA. “We’ve got to fix our potholes. You know, we don’t exactly have a lot of money.”

For now, imagining space policy under a Trump administration is akin to reading tea leaves. The same goes for future funding for NASA, which could be sapped to help pay for completely unrelated programs, like large tax cuts or expensive infrastructure repairs. A new NASA administrator won’t be named until next year, and, barring any foreshadowing tweets, Trump could wait, as Obama did, until his second year in office before formally announcing his space-policy agenda. But Trump’s space policy has already begun to take shape, and there’s plenty to divine. His team for NASA began meeting with agency employees at the start of this month. His picks for top administration jobs so far, combined with his biggest pro-space allies in Congress, suggest a future that’s good for solar-system exploration, but bad for climate research.

The NASA’s earth sciences division, which studies climate change and environmental conditions on Earth, is perhaps at greatest risk. In an October op-ed in SpaceNews, a pair of Trump advisers wrote that “NASA should be focused primarily on deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies.” The agency, they said, focuses too much on “politically correct environmental monitoring.” The division has seen increases in funding in the last eight years, but Republicans in Congress have proposed cuts at every turn. With both the White House and Congress in Republican hands, space-policy experts are bracing for significant losses. One of the authors of the op-ed, Bob Walker, a former chairman of the House committee on science, space and technology, said last month Trump's decisions surrounding NASA “will be based upon solid science, not politicized science,” like climate change.

The same op-ed dismissed the concept of rocket launch systems that are completely bankrolled by the taxpayer money, arguing instead for the investment of reusable systems developed by private companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK. The authors were referring to the Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket Congress instructed NASA to build in 2011 to someday launch astronauts to Mars. Greg Autry, a professor at the University of Southern California and one of the members of Trump's transition team for NASA, has criticized the SLS, saying it lacks "both innovation and a mission." He has proposed cutting funding for the program altogether and supporting private-sector developers. Many scientists and the Obama administration agree, and the president has proposed cuts to the program. The SLS is a young project, with construction starting in 2014. But the system has staunch supporters in Congress, especially among Republicans who represent states where the system is being developed. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, the Republican senators from Alabama, have fought cuts proposed by the Obama administration. Sessions is also Trump’s pick for attorney general.

Trump advisers are also skeptical of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), an Obama-proposed program to send astronauts to visit an asteroid by the 2020s and test technology that could be beneficial for a Mars trip. The program has lackluster support among scientists and even less in Congress, where Republican lawmakers have tried to block its funding. Last month, Texas congressman Lamar Smith, chairman of the House committee on science, space, and technology and an early Trump ally, asked NASA to show lawmakers the merits of ARM. If Trump wanted the program gone, he wouldn’t have to try too hard. Smith supports other solar-system missions, like sending spacecraft to search for signs of life in the subsurface ocean of Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon.

There is one Obama-era policy that Trump could preserve—and even expand. Each year, Obama has requested from Congress more funds for NASA's commercial spaceflight program, which invests in private companies designing launch systems. Trump’s advisers have described such public-private partnerships as the “foundation” for space-exploration efforts. Trump recently named Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, to an economic advisory team, and has met with Jeff Bezos, the founder of spaceflight company Blue Origin, despite their contentious relationship over The Washington Post.

Some programs could be tougher to amend than others. NASA has been on a very public trajectory to Mars for nearly seven years—and Congress, in an unusual show of bipartisanship, wants to keep it that way. Earlier this month, the Senate unanimously passed legislation that amends current law by adding human exploration of Mars to one of NASA's objectives. The bill—which is not expected to become law this year but could come up again in the next Congress—is intended to make it politically difficult for future administrations to drastically alter NASA’s plans to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. The legislation is sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a supporter of deep-space exploration.

The bill wouldn’t stop Trump, if he wanted to, from switching NASA's main goal to a return to the moon first before Mars—a move that would likely be welcomed by his adviser, Newt Gingrich, a lunar-mission advocate. It would mark a radical shift in NASA’s mission, but such change wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama said NASA had “lost focus.” When he entered office, he quickly canceled the Constellation program, created under George W. Bush to return humans to the moon by 2020. When Trump takes office, some programs could disappear like Constellation did. Like Bolden said last month, it’d be crazy to think anything survives a transition.