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Bill Nye has a few tips for President Trump on how to manage NASA

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A friendly message from the CEO of the Planetary Society

Bill Nye — the CEO for the Planetary Society and reputed “Science Guy” — has created a public video message for President Trump, in which he recommends how the new administration should oversee NASA in the years ahead. Nye’s main points revolve around keeping NASA’s primary focus on sending humans to Mars, without neglecting the agency’s other science objectives. He also advocates that NASA should continue to embrace the commercial space industry — and that the agency should get more money.

These recommendations are echoed in a 16-page report that the Planetary Society gave to the NASA transition team before Trump took office. Now, Nye and the Planetary Society have decided to share these thoughts with the public, so that everyone knows where the organization stands.

The release also comes at a time when there’s a lot of uncertainty about America’s future space policy and many rumors have been swirling about how the new administration will redirect NASA. Budget cuts may be on the horizon and speculation has been growing that a return to the Moon could be on the table again — a prospect that potentially worries those at the Planetary Society “One of the reasons we just put this out is because we have heard those rumors,” Casey Dreier, director of space policy for the Planetary Society, tells The Verge. “We don’t want NASA to shift again and put the majority of its resources into a lunar program. These shifts don’t turn on a dime.”

Dreier, who helped write this report, walked us through the major points that Nye highlights in his video message and explains why the Planetary Society felt the need to speak up about these recommendations.

1. Keep Mars as the goal

During the previous administration, President Obama pivoted NASA’s focus from a human return to the Moon to a “Journey to Mars.” It was an enormous change for the agency that nearly upended many ongoing projects, and NASA is still in the process of getting its Mars program off the ground. Currently, the agency is building a crew capsule for the initiative, called the Orion, as well as a giant rocket known as the Space Launch System, which has yet to fly for the first time.

A rendering of the Space Launch System.
Photo: NASA

The Obama administration was singularly focused on Mars and did not advocate for a return to the Moon’s surface. But that could change under Trump. His NASA transition team was filled with many people once attached to the Constellation program — the Moon return mission that was cancelled under Obama. And one of Trump’s notable supporters is Newt Gingrich, who has been very vocal about his desire to build a Moon base.

It’s an idea that may excite a few people, but it has the Planetary Society worried. “If you want to shift NASA to be the primary provider of funds for a lunar base, you won’t be able to get to Mars in a generation,” says Dreier, who cites the enormous shift NASA underwent to focus on Mars under Obama. Dreier clarifies that the Planetary Society doesn’t think NASA should never go back to the Moon. In fact, NASA has many plans to send people to the vicinity of the Moon as a way of preparing for a Mars mission. But he argues that a lunar base would be a similar drain on NASA’s resources as the International Space Station program, which requires around $3 billion a year to maintain.

That would make it hard for NASA, with its already limited budget, to afford a Mars mission, says Dreier. “If you have NASA as a primary partner on a lunar base, you’d have the same fundamental resource needs,” says Dreier. “And Mars will just get pushed further and further back and recede into the future.”

2. Orbit Mars first

Not only does Nye think NASA should stay focused on sending humans to Mars, but he advocates for a specific way of doing it: have people orbit the Red Planet first before landing on it. The Planetary Society has been a big supporter of this “orbit first” approach for a while now. The organization held a workshop in 2015 to figure out how NASA could get people in the vicinity of Mars by the 2030s, without the agency needing a substantial budget increase.

The idea is that NASA should conduct a series of human missions around the Moon in the 2020s, followed by a crewed Mars orbiter mission in 2033. Then NASA should actually land on Mars in 2039. “If you don’t want to demand giant increases in funding, ‘orbit first’ makes a ton of sense, especially from a safety consideration,” says Dreier. “You know what you can get to Mars and what you can get back from Mars.”

3. Expand NASA’s science programs

Nye’s next point seems pretty straightforward: expand NASA’s science initiatives. The agency’s science programs focus on planetary science, astrophysics, heliophysics, and Earth science, and the Planetary Society recommends that the Trump administration not only continue these initiatives but strengthen them with more funding. “All of NASA’s science fits into less than 30 percent of the budget, so you’ve got a lot of extra room for a refresh all of these science programs,” says Dreier. “Human spaceflight takes up a lot of attention politically, but science needs that recognition and needs to be promoted as one of the great unique benefits of NASA.”

A picture of Jupiter taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft.
Photo: NASA

However, a lot of uncertainty has surrounded one of NASA’s science programs. As part of the Earth science program, the agency manages a host of satellites in orbit that study climate and other processes on our planet. One of Trump’s space policy advisors during the campaign suggested that the program be removed from NASA and transitioned to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in order to free up funds for more ambitious space exploration endeavors. But Dreier says that would be a mistake, given the sheer amount of data NASA collects on the Earth from satellites. “To remove Earth Science from NASA would be just a set back to Earth science as a concept,” says Dreier. “No other agency does what NASA does.”

4. Embrace the commercial space industry

During the Obama administration, NASA made big strides in partnering with major commercial spaceflight companies. The agency successfully implemented the first round of the Commercial Cargo program, in which two companies — SpaceX and Orbital ATK — were tasked with periodically sending supplies to and from the International Space Station. And NASA also selected SpaceX and Boeing to take part in the Commercial Crew program, in which the companies will send astronauts to the ISS and back.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from California.
Photo: SpaceX

It’s these kinds of partnerships that Nye and the Planetary Society want to see continue. And recently, commercial companies have been making it clear that they have a lot of capabilities to offer to NASA. SpaceX recently announced its own private mission to send humans around the Moon next year, while Blue Origin and Bigelow Aerospace have also discussed their desires to undertake missions related to the Moon. Many of these announcements have been considered efforts by the private sector to advertise to the new administration, in order to spawn new partnerships with NASA. “There’s definitely people jockeying for the attention and the hearts and minds of the new administration,” says Dreier. “You’ve got lots of money on the line, and it’s an example of a healthy space program.”

5. Increase NASA’s budget

Nye saves his most optimistic hope for last. He argues that the Trump administration should increase NASA’s budget by 5 percent each year for the next five years. That way, the agency will have the money it needs to execute its ambitious human spaceflight program and science programs.

It’s an incredibly hopeful thought at a time when NASA is currently working on the president’s budget request for 2018. And all signs point to NASA facing a potentially large cut in its funding from the new administration. It’s something that the Planetary Society is aware of. “Obviously we knew based on hints and signs that funding was going to be a challenge, but at the same time, the space community has to be honest about what it needs if it’s going to succeed,” says Dreier. “We should not change our message because the non-defense discretionary part of the budget may shrink. The ‘five over five’ plan is totally realistic in terms of overall spending.”

Plus, once the president’s budget request for NASA is submitted, it’s not a done deal. That budget request then gets revised by Congress, which ultimately approves the final yearly budget for NASA. It’s possible that while the president’s request may be low, Congress could still give NASA more money. “Congress has been showing a willingness to provide NASA with funds above and beyond what the president has requested,” says Dreier. “That is a far from done story in terms of what Congress decides to do.”