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Trump's NASA looks good for human space exploration and terrible for Earth science

Trump's NASA looks good for human space exploration and terrible for Earth science


And public-private partnerships will likely continue

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Update November 23rd 2:30PM ET: When this story was originally reported on November 9th, Walker thought he might be on the NASA transition team. He has since told The Verge that he won't be a team member, since he is a lobbyist, but that he hopes to play a role as an outside advisor. Trump still has yet to officially appoint members of the transition team for NASA.

It’s difficult to predict what a Donald Trump presidency will mean for the future of NASA. The newly elected commander in chief has said very little about his space policy plans throughout the course of his campaign. But Trump’s space advisors have made some things clear: they want the space program to focus more on human deep space exploration and less on researching the Earth and climate science. And the private spaceflight industry will continue to play a significant role in space policy moving forward.

"NASA should be focused primarily on deep space activities."

These insights into Trump’s space policy come from a recent op-ed in Space News, written by Robert S. Walker, former chairman of the House Science Committee, and Peter Navarro, an economist and public policy expert. "NASA should be focused primarily on deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies," the two wrote. "Human exploration of our entire Solar System by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal."

Walker, who wrote Trump’s proposed space policy, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association should take over all of NASA’s satellite missions that are used to research Earth and its climate. "The science that is being doing is essentially Earth-based science," Walker tells The Verge. "It relates to weather; it relates to Earth-based needs. And so NOAA is probably a more appropriate place for that to be done." The goal is to free up funds for more NASA human exploration missions into deep space, Walker says.

This policy move could completely rearrange NASA’s Earth Science division, which has seen a relatively steady increase in funding under the Obama administration. NASA received $1.921 billion for its Earth Science division for fiscal year 2016, up from $1.5 billion in 2009. However, there are no known plans to increase funding to NOAA for this transition. Over the past eight years, NASA has launched a series of key Earth-observing satellites, such as the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCVR) and the Jason satellites, which have gathered valuable data about Earth’s climate, space weather, sea level changes, and more.

Some of NASA's Earth Science satellites. (NASA)

Whether or not Trump will completely slash NASA’s Earth Science division is unknown, but it’s not impossible. The president and Congress work together to decide NASA’s budget, and Republicans control both the House and the Senate now. "They’re not going to be able to cut Earth Science by a billion and use that for exploration," Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, tells The Verge. "But with the Republicans in the Senate and the House, we haven’t had undivided government like this since the beginning of Obama."

Strong public-private partnerships will continue

It seems there will be some alignment with Obama’s NASA, though. Perhaps the biggest focus of NASA during the Obama administration has been public-private partnerships — initiatives in which NASA has partnered with commercial companies to fulfill one of the agency’s exploration needs. The most prominent of these partnerships have been the Commercial Crew and Cargo Programs, through which commercial launch providers like SpaceX are tasked with ferrying people and cargo to and from the International Space Station. Walker and Navarro made it clear that strong public-private partnerships will continue, and that they will seek to turn the International Space Station into a "quasi-public facility" — something NASA has expressed interest in doing for some time.

To ensure that the commercial sector is utilized effectively, Walker intends to resurrect a national space policy council — a group of officials headed by the vice president who would "assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing US interests." The last National Space Council was created by President George H. W. Bush, but was disbanded in 1993 under President Bill Clinton.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launching cargo to the International Space Station. (SpaceX)

As for the rest of NASA, it’s very unclear. If history tells us anything, the space agency mostly experiences continuity during a presidential transition, though that wasn’t the case in 2008. At that time, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program was coming to an end, the International Space Station was nearing completion, and the fledgling Constellation program — an initiative to return to the Moon — was experiencing delays and running over budget. When Obama came into office, his transition team, helmed by Lori Garver, eventually canceled Constellation and put NASA on a path to Mars instead, completely redirecting the space agency’s focus.

Garver suggests the Trump transition team could make drastic changes

Garver suggests the Trump transition team, helmed by George H. W. Bush’s former space policy advisor Mark Albrecht, could make drastic changes as well. "Headed by Clinton, they really just weren’t planning to have nearly the amount of investigative hard look at things as they likely will now," Garver tells The Verge. "So in many ways if it was Hillary it was going to be a very different transition than mine. And now I think it’ll be more similar."

There is also major dissent over many of NASA’s human exploration programs, notably the Asteroid Redirect Mission and whether or not to send humans to Mars or to the surface of the Moon first. It’s possible that NASA, which has been adamantly focused on its Journey to Mars, could redirect its sights to the Moon under Trump. "We laid out our vision to have human exploration of the entire Solar System by the end of the century," Walker tells The Verge. "That certainly includes the Moon and Mars and well beyond most of those."

A rendering of NASA's Space Launch System. (NASA)

The deep space vehicles that NASA is developing to get to Mars — the Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) — may not be safe either. Walker and Navarro expressed a desire to get rid of redundancies in the space vehicles we are building. For instance, the SLS is just one of multiple similar heavy-lift vehicles in development right now; SpaceX is working on its Falcon Heavy and Blue Origin announced plans to create a robust rocket that could lift heavy payloads to orbit. "There should be some insight from the government if those commercial assets could be used to [NASA’s] benefit," says Walker.

But Walker also says that nothing’s set in stone yet. "No determination has been made on SLS or Orion, I suspect since it’s over budget and behind schedule, there will certainly be a review of that," says Walker. "But it’s a fairly mature program at that time, and the cost of getting out of the contracts may be greater than going in a new direction."

Garver agrees that NASA employees shouldn’t be concerned about all of their programs disappearing. "They’ll be fine," says Garver. "NASA is a very resilient bipartisan agency and a fresh look is a positive thing. There are plenty of extremely good Republicans who have been advising Trump. I think NASA will be okay."

Update November 9th 5:20PM ET: This article was updated to clarify NOAA's funding future.

Correction November 10th 12:30PM ET: A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Garver. She described NASA as a bipartisan agency, not a partisan one, and the article has been updated.