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NASA’s hopes for Mars and the future are at stake in the 2016 election

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The space agency is going through a big transition, and that could mean changes are on the way next year

Election years are a tense time for NASA. A new president can completely alter NASA’s long-term goals by resetting the space agency’s agenda. Whoever is elected will be faced with a choice: change the focus or scope of NASA’s goals, or keep things going on the same track. And given the uncertainty that has plagued NASA for a while, it’s very possible that major changes are on the horizon.

NASA’s human spaceflight program stands at a significant crossroads

NASA’s human spaceflight program stands at a significant crossroads. For the past five years, the space agency has been moving from the now-dead Space Shuttle program to the "Journey to Mars" — NASA’s goal of sending humans to the Red Planet by the 2030s. But this transition has lacked direction. NASA has yet to lay out a timeline of the missions it plans to do to get humans to Mars, nor has it outlined the architecture needed to keep people alive on the planet — such as habitats, landers, life support systems, and more. This lack of detail has been criticized by Congress, which has also questioned if NASA even has enough funding for a Mars trip. And on top of that, the vehicles that NASA is building to take people to Mars will likely run over budget and miss important deadlines, according to government reports.

This election has given voters little insight into what either candidate would do; the candidates’ views on space policy have been more or less absent from political conversation. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s remarks on NASA have been brief, vague, and — at times — confusing. Clinton has offered her support for NASA, but won’t elaborate on what that means exactly, and Trump is eager to make America great in space again, but also doesn’t delve into specifics.

But eventually, whoever assumes office will be confronted with the current state of NASA. "What I do know is both of them are going to confront the same reality if they’re elected," Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, tells The Verge. "And the same reality is that the program of record doesn’t fit inside any reasonably projected long-term budget."

An artistic rendering of the Space Launch System. (NASA)

The space agency has been developing two major vehicles to take humans into deep space: the Orion crew capsule, which can hold a crew of four astronauts, and the Space Launch System (SLS) — a giant heavy-lift rocket. The SLS is scheduled to fly for the first time in 2018, taking an uncrewed version of Orion into orbit around the Moon. Then people are supposed to fly on the Orion / SLS combo for the first time in 2023 (though NASA is working toward an "aggressive internal date" of 2021). After that, an uncrewed mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, mandated by Congress, is set for the mid-2020s, but not much else has been confirmed for the SLS and Orion.

There is mostly bipartisan support for both SLS and Orion in Congress

There is mostly bipartisan support for both SLS and Orion in Congress, which means that they could survive the next administration change. "One thing you do see is multiple statements in support of NASA’s major hardware programs," says Casey Dreier, director of space policy for the Planetary Society. "SLS and Orion are likely to continue, because you have a broad amount of support from people in Congress who are in a position to keep them going."

What does divide policy experts, though, is where to send these vehicles. The tentative plan for SLS after its second test flight is to send it on the contentious Asteroid Redirect Mission. That program involves grabbing a small boulder off a near-Earth asteroid, bringing it into orbit around the Moon, and then sending astronauts on the SLS to explore the space rock in lunar orbit. NASA has said the mission is mostly about testing out technologies needed for a Mars trip.

An artistic rendering of a vehicle NASA will use for the Asteroid Redirect Mission. (NASA)

The initiative has been panned by many within Congress as well as industry experts. The Small Bodies Assessment Group — a NASA-established organization that identifies priorities for how to explore asteroids and comets — has been super critical of the mission in the past, saying the mission is not "a cost effective way to address science goals." A program with so few supporters may be the first to get cut. "If the next president wants to come in and make a break with the past administration, but not still not fundamentally disrupt NASA as a whole, I think ending ARM is a clear political way to go," says Dreier.

"I think ending ARM is a clear political way to go."

But perhaps the longest ongoing debate has been whether going to Mars even makes sense for NASA. Congress has repeatedly questioned if the space agency will have the budget for such a complex mission, which could easily reach hundreds of billions to pull off. And NASA’s human exploration program only receives around $4 billion each year. Congress has also criticized NASA for not laying out a timeline for all the missions the space agency will need to do to get to the Red Planet, leaving the "Journey to Mars" largely undefined. "They don’t really have plans for what to do with Orion and SLS after the second mission," says Muncy. Nor has NASA provided details about the other technologies it still needs to develop, such as the interplanetary transit vehicle that will take astronauts back and forth from Mars or the habitats that will keep people alive on the Martian surface. NASA has released a 36-page document about its strategy for getting to Mars, which has been criticized for lacking specifics.

NASA's infographic for the Journey to Mars. (NASA)

In fact, many people in Congress would rather return to the Moon instead. But the Moon has been off the table as a destination during the Obama administration. President Obama said the US wouldn’t return to the Moon because "we’ve been there before" during a 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center that outlined the agenda for America’s current space policy. That effectively squashed all of NASA’s plans to go to the lunar surface while Obama was in office. Though a Moon mission is not explicitly forbidden in NASA’s 2010 Authorization Act, which lays out the US space policy, the idea of returning to the lunar surface hasn’t been openly considered by NASA since.

Congressional staffers are making moves to exploit the president’s departure

With Obama gone next year, that may change. And many Congressional staffers are making moves to exploit the president’s departure. Recently, the House came out with a draft of a bill that would fund NASA for the 2017 fiscal year. In it, the bill gets rid of funding for ARM and encourages NASA to return to the Moon instead. With Congress’ support, revisiting the Moon could become a very real possibility again starting next year. "I’m not saying Mars will get deemphasized, but I don’t think the Moon will be off the table anymore," says Muncy.

The Moon may be an attractive option for a new president, as well. A Mars trip is decades away, but a Moon mission could be conducted on a much shorter time scale. And a Moon mission could keep the public enthusiastic about the state of America’s space program. NASA has already proposed sending SLS and Orion to space stations in the vicinity of the Moon. The vehicles could be used to take people to the lunar surface, as well.

The European Space Agency's concept for a lunar village. (ESA)

A lunar mission could also be an effective political tool for the next administration, by bringing in international partners. "If you look at the history of human spaceflight in the US, it’s driven more by geopolitical issues," Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, tells The Verge. Most of the international space agencies — including the European Space Agency, Russia, and China — are focused on the Moon, as it’s a more attainable goal for them. A NASA-led lunar mission could foster international space cooperation with these state agencies that a Mars mission can’t. "To get people to do things with you, you have to have goals they can be part of," says Pace. "And Mars and asteroids are basically too challenging and too difficult for other countries to participate in. I think any candidate of either party would re-embrace the idea of an international-led return to the Moon, because there are more opportunities for partnerships — commercial and international. It’s more doable." And if other countries are cooperating with the US on space missions, they may be more likely to cooperate in other areas, too.

"To get people to do things with you, you have to have goals they can be part of."

But because neither candidate has talked much about NASA, it’s hard to know whether they’re interested in the Moon. Trump does have close ties with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has been a vocal advocate for returning to the Moon. It’s possible that Gingrich may influence Trump’s space policy if elected. But the theme of Trump’s statements on space seem to show that space policy is not at the forefront of his mind. In a recent questionnaire for the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), Trump said his space policies will be determined based on the US’s overall economy. It’s a sentiment that he’s echoed a few times throughout the campaign. "[His idea is:] let’s fix potholes first before we talk about Mars," says Dreier.

Nor has Clinton said much about her space agenda. Perhaps the most insight we have into Clinton’s space policy comes from a town hall she did in Dover, New Hampshire in July of 2015. When asked about whether or not NASA should continue, Clinton responded that she "really, really [does] support the space program" because of its ability to create new businesses. However, it’s not clear how Clinton’s support for NASA will translate into action. It could entail increased funding or perhaps a different focus. However, Clinton has somewhat positioned herself as a kind of third term for President Obama, so she could continue many of the same policies that he laid out when he came into office. That may not bode well for a Moon return.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launching cargo to the International Space Station, part of NASA's Commercial Cargo program. (SpaceX)

However, Clinton will likely take advice on how to craft space policy from her former advisor Lori Garver, who is a big proponent of making NASA more efficient. Garver advised Clinton during her 2008 campaign and was asked to help advise President Obama on NASA during his transition to the White House; she eventually went on to serve as NASA’s deputy administrator from 2009 through 2013. Clinton may turn to Garver again, should she be elected. Garver has been very critical of NASA’s big-budget programs and favors a stronger focus on partnering with the private sector. That could mean more programs like Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew, in which NASA buys spaceflight services from private companies.

The less the candidates say, the more they can do

Not knowing what either candidate has planned may be frustrating, especially to those in the space program, but the silence on space policy may actually be a good thing, according to Dreier. "I’ve actually been arguing for our next president to not put space front and center," says Dreier. "For issues that don’t have a pre-existing ideological bent, if you tie it to a presidential agenda, you create a ton of incentive for the opposition party to stymie and block that for no other reason than to undermine the president being successful."

That means a lot of uncertainty for NASA, but Dreier may be right: the less the candidates say, the more they can do. So until November, the people at NASA will continue down the Journey to Mars knowing that there’s a strong possibility they may soon change direction.


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