This morning, President Donald Trump signed into law the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 — a bill that essentially authorizes the space agency to keep doing what it’s been doing for the past seven years. But during the signing of the bill, which maintains many of NASA’s big budget programs, Trump placed a lot of emphasis on the commercial space industry and noted that the bill will allow NASA to continue working with the private sector. It’s the most Trump has said about NASA and space policy since he’s taken office.
“This bill will make sure that NASA’s most important and effective programs are sustained and orders NASA to continue ... transitioning activities to the commercial sector where we have seen great progress. It’s amazing what’s going on,” Trump said during the signing. “So many people and so many companies are so into exactly what NASA stands for. So the commercial and the private sector will get to use these facilities, and I hope they’re going to be paying us a lot of money, because they’re going to make great progress.”
The new bill keeps NASA mostly on the same course it has been on since the last authorization act in 2010. It mostly reaffirms NASA’s commitment to deep space human exploration and calls for a crewed mission to Mars by 2033. The law is mainly a way of grounding NASA during the administration change, so it’s still unclear exactly how space policy under the Trump administration will further incorporate the commercial space industry. But it looks like the resurrected National Space Council will provide guidance on NASA’s future policies. After the signing of the bill, Vice President Mike Pence noted that the council — a defunct executive advisory group that used to make recommendations on the US space agenda — will be formed once again. It was something that was rumored during the presidential campaign.
“In very short order, the president will be taking action to relaunch the National Space Council, and he’s asked me to chair that, as vice presidents have in the past,” said Pence. “We’re going to be bringing together the best and the brightest from NASA and also in the private sector.”
Different versions of the National Space Council have been in play over the years. An early iteration of the council was created when NASA first formed in 1958. Called the National Aeronautics and Space Council, it was typically chaired by the vice presidents and aimed at coordinating US priorities based on the various major players in the space realm. That council was abolished by Nixon in 1973, but then reemerged as the National Space Council in 1989 under President George H.W. Bush. It eventually disbanded again in 1993. There’s been some debate about whether or not bringing back the National Space Council is a good idea, depending on how it is staffed and how much influence it will actually have over policy.
Also during the signing, Trump highlighted NASA’s Commercial Crew Program — an agency initiative to send astronauts to and from the International Space Station on commercial spacecraft. But at the same time, he also talked about continuing NASA’s commitment to its deep space exploration programs, including the agency’s next big rocket, the Space Launch System, and the Orion crew capsule. However, Trump did not specify Mars as NASA’s overall exploration goal for these vehicles, which the agency has repeatedly harped on in the past. And in a moment of great irony, Trump mispronounced “Orion.”
What does this all mean for the future of NASA? The statements suggest commercial space will enjoy a larger role with NASA in the future, but the full extent of the administration’s plans for space is still unknown. It seems likely that we’ll know more about the administration’s vision once the National Space Council gets into full swing. Meanwhile, Trump still seems to support the idea that he’d rather fix US infrastructure before visiting other worlds. After the signing, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) noted that President Trump will one day be known as the “father of the interplanetary highway system.” Trump said that sounded exciting but immediately added that “first we want to fix our highways.”