During a cabinet meeting today, President Donald Trump remarked briefly on the success of the private industry — and that NASA seems to be increasingly using vehicles from commercial companies. The only problem: the Trump administration’s budget requests don’t make significant strides to partner with the private sector.
Trump pointed to last month’s launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy as a good example of what the commercial sector can accomplish. He marveled at how the rockets “landed beautifully” on Earth after launch “without wings.” He also noted how cheap the cost of the launch was:
“They said it cost $80 million,” Trump said, though technically the starting price of a Falcon Heavy is $90 million. “If the government had done it, the same thing would have cost probably 40 to 50 times that amount of money. I mean literally. When I heard $80 million, you know I’m so used to hearing different numbers with NASA.”
He’s not wrong! NASA is building its own monster rocket, the Space Launch System, which will eventually carry about twice as much to orbit as the Falcon Heavy. But it costs much more — NASA is spending nearly $3 billion a year to develop the SLS, and the space agency estimates each launch of the rocket will cost $1 billion. By contrast, the reusable version of the Falcon Heavy costs a mere $90 million, and an expendable version weighs in at $150 million.
President Trump's full comments on NASA, commercial space: "It's really amazing what's happening in regards to space and our country." pic.twitter.com/ygHmtEVJzS— Michael Sheetz (@thesheetztweetz) March 8, 2018
Trump went on to say that we’re utilizing the private sector more for spaceflight. “NASA is making tremendous strides, and we’re using a lot of private money,” he said. “A lot of people that love rockets and they’re rich, so they’re going to be a little less rich probably. But a lot of rockets are going up.” He later added: “We’re really at the forefront and we’re doing it in a private manner. At the same time, NASA is very much involved in doing their own projects but we’re bringing that whole spaceflight back.”
That’s not quite right. The Space Shuttle program did end in 2011, but private companies have been launching rockets for the last few decades (though it’s true that launch cadences have increased in recent years). But overall, Trump seems to be insinuating that the US and NASA are relying more on private companies to launch rockets. And that’s not what is reflected in the recent presidential budget requests.
NASA has been partnering more with the private sector in the last decade — that’s true. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the space agency started new innovative programs in which NASA would partially fund the development of new vehicles from private companies with less government oversight, as seen with the Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs. These endeavors seem to have saved NASA money in the long-run.
Still, the Trump administration hasn’t made any substantial moves to rely more on the commercial sector. In the most recent budget request, the administration called for a future module for a new space station to be launched specifically on a commercial vehicle. However, the most recent budget request still makes massive amounts of room for the big human exploration initiatives: the Space Launch System ($2.08 billion), a new crew capsule called Orion ($1.16 billion), and development of all the ground systems needed to launch the vehicle ($428 million). All of that takes up about 23 percent of NASA’s budget, and those numbers simply reflect how much NASA will spend on the projects this year. The rocket isn’t expected to fly until 2020.
The Trump administration does want to end direct funding for the International Space Station program by 2025. The plan is for commercial companies to take over the capabilities of the space station by that time and establish domain of lower Earth orbit. The problem with that is there’s no solid plan for how that is going to happen. The budget allocates just $150 million this year to help private companies with this transition, but NASA hasn’t divulged how it will spend the money.
This administration does talk about partnering with private companies quite a bit. The topic has been one of the biggest themes of the last two National Space Council meetings, in which Mike Pence discusses how to direct space policy efforts. But right now it’s all just talk. And as long as NASA continues to fund the costly development of its big human exploration projects, the government’s talk about using private money is as cheap as commercial rockets.