Will Trump go to Mars? Nasa’s nervous wait

The president-elect’s priorities for the US space agency are of crucial importance for Earth as well as for future space exploration

In Nasa language it’s called a pivot. It’s a policy change, a U-turn or a departure from a goal set by the previous US president. Until the election of Donald Trump, space insiders and even Nasa itself had a pretty good idea what, under a Hillary Clinton presidency, that pivot was going to be. It wasn’t going to be popular but it was necessary.

People had been whispering it for more than a year. Even as the Nasa PR machine talked endlessly about “the journey to Mars”, those in the know understood that it was little more than a pipe dream. Following the election, a “transition team” would be sent to take stock at Nasa, and the agency’s goals would gradually pivot away from Mars and to the moon.

Returning astronauts to the moon with the cooperation of other space agencies around the world was achievable and there was a definite appetite for it. The European Space Agency and Russia were both interested in taking part and the International Space Station was seen as the blueprint for the kind of multinational cooperation that could make it happen. In essence, it was what both Hilary Clinton’s Democrats and Washington Republicans were looking to make happen.

“The space policies were not very different. People would joke that you could take an editorial by a Republican space person, change a couple of words here and there and then put Clinton’s name on it. We were all assuming that Clinton would win. I knew who the people were that would show up at Nasa the next day to begin the transition process,” says Keith Cowing, a former Nasa employee who now edits Nasawatch.com.

Then, of course, Trump won. At first it seemed no big deal, but then surprising events started to unfold. A day or two after the election, none of the expected Republican advisers were named as part of the Trump transition team for space. “They were either thrown off because they were lobbyists or had decided that they did not want to be involved,” says Cowing, who has been reporting on Nasa from Washington DC for 20 years. “Suddenly it went from what seemed to be clarity to complete mystery.”

This week, however, some clarity finally emerged. Christopher Shank, who held senior policy jobs at Nasa and sat on Congress’s House Science Committee, will lead the transition team. One of the first things he is going to have to look at is the rocket that Nasa are building to supposedly take astronauts to Mars: the Space Launch System (SLS).

SLS is controversial because it is so expensive. It is part of a multi-billion-dollar-per-year programme that will only fly four times between 2018 and 2026. In many ways it is Nasa’s flagship programme, but it is sucking a huge amount of money out of the agency’s budget on the what-if scenario of human Mars missions.

It is also looking egregiously expensive when compared with the progress being made at private companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is developing a large rocket of its own, the Falcon Heavy.

Lori Garver, who was part of Barack Obama’s transition team in 2008 and went on to become Nasa deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013, says that the single best thing the Trump administration can do for Nasa is cancel SLS.

“Nasa should invest more in the technologies that are too advanced for the private sector, and the technologies that are of real benefit to society,” says Garver. “There is too much of a disconnect from the benefits to the people who have funded the organisation.”

She says that the agency has become insular. “Astronauts want to go to Mars or the moon or wherever. But why do they want to go there? We went to the moon in the 1960s to beat the Russians and advance technology in the cold war and be world leaders. But what’s our reason now?”

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, announcing the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, announcing the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Beating the Chinese perhaps? They have been making huge advances in space and it is clear that landing their own astronauts on the moon is on the horizon.

Garver is dismissive of that kind of thinking: “Playing out a back-to-the‑moon scenario with China is tough because we’ve already been. Six times. Do we really want to put in a bunch of resources to say we went a seventh time?”

Yet the prospect of reviving the glory days of the Apollo moon landings plays nicely into the Trump rhetoric of making America great again.

“My biggest concern with Trump is that he keeps saying our space programme is worthy of a third-world nation. What is he even talking about? We have the best space programme on the planet. It is the envy of the world. I think his transition team is going to find that Nasa is in good shape, and just a few corrections could make it even better,” says Garver.

A clear concern is that Trump intends to slash the climate change budget. The fear comes primarily from an op-ed published on spacenews.com on 19 October written by Robert Walker and Peter Navarro, who at the time were senior advisers to the Trump campaign.

They wrote: “Nasa’s core missions must be exploration and science – and inspirational! These are the fundamental underpinnings of a Trump civilian space programme. Nasa should be focused primarily on deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies.”

Trump is well known as a climate-change denier. He infamously tweeted that global warming was a conspiracy theory of the Chinese to damage US manufacturing. This has panicked some. Speaking to the Guardian, Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, said that eliminating Earth science at Nasa “Could put us back into the ‘dark ages’ of almost the pre-satellite era.” He added, “Space research is a luxury, Earth observations are essential.”

Walker has suggested that some Earth observation missions could be placed under the jurisdiction of other US agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa). According to Garver though, Noaa simply does not have the capability to take over developing these hi-tech missions. She says that those saying they do are simply uninformed, but they have the ear of the president.

“I think you could have a fairly rash decision to cut Nasa’s budget for this, to not increase Noaa’s and so lose the capability to advance the technology necessary to do this,” says Garver.

“Donald Trump has pledged to ‘drain the swamp’ in his first 100 days. But Nasa has no idea whether they are part of this 100 days or not. They do not know what the budget is going to be, whether Earth science is being carved out of Nasa or the journey to Mars is being cancelled. They are just sitting there waiting to be told, and this may go on for months,” says Cowing.

The general lack of clarity currently emanating from the Trump camp is not helping anyone, and that includes Nasa’s international partners. With the worst timing possible, the European Space Agency held a long-scheduled ministerial meeting this week to discuss its space programme for the coming years. But not knowing what Nasa’s priorities are makes life very difficult.

“The global spaceflight community, rightly or wrongly, does look to the United States for leadership in civilian space activity,” says David Baker, the editor of Spaceflight magazine. As an engineer, Baker worked for Nasa on the Apollo programme.

ESA is currently in the plum role of building a large part of the spacecraft for Nasa’s new human capsule, known as Orion. This makes ESA a crucial partner in any return to the moon or eventual mission to Mars. Yet stories abound of how American manufacturers are keen to see those lucrative contracts returned to US soil. And Donald Trump may have a very sympathetic ear.

“It’s not just a wall around Mexico that Trump is thinking about, it’s a wall around the continental United States,” says Baker.

To protect itself from the current vagaries of Nasa, Baker thinks ESA should look eastwards: “I’m a great believer that ESA should be moving towards Russia, and I’m also a great believer that we should be moving much closer to China. With those associations, I don’t think there is necessarily going to be the same driven urgency to get with Nasa to do the big bold things that Europe wants to do.”

We all know that the Trump presidency is going to be felt around the planet. Now it seems that the repercussions will also extend into space.

An image of early melting on the Greeland ice sheet taken by Nasa’s Earth Observing-1 satellite on 15 June 2016.
An image of early melting on the Greeland ice sheet taken by Nasa’s Earth Observing-1 satellite on 15 June 2016. Photograph: ALI/Earth Observing-1/NASA

Blast off: five calls Trump has to make

The Space Launch System
This enormously expensive, gigantic rocket is eating up money. Trump could see it as a flagship of American national power, or cancel it and turn to the private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, who are developing large rockets of their own.

The journey to Mars
A human trip to Mars is not going to happen within a Trump presidency, but the decisions he makes could affect Nasa for decades. Trump could cancel the programme outright or use it as a rallying cry for making America great again. If he does the latter, he is going to have to find some serious cash to pump into it.

Earth observation
There seems no doubt that cuts are coming here. The only question is how much of the programme survives. Earth observation satellites could be removed completely from the Nasa budget.

Human moon missions
Trump will probably press for returning astronauts to the moon but only as a stepping stone to Mars. The level of cooperation with Russia and Europe to achieve this, however, may be lower than those partners would like.

The wildcard. Trump could either invite them on board the International Space Station as partners, figuring that there are commercial benefits, or he could paint them as rivals to be beaten and thus spur grandstanding Nasa projects like a return to the moon or mission to Mars. SC


Stuart Clark

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
To the moon and beyond: what 2022 holds for space travel
From lunar missions to anti-asteroid defence systems, there are plenty of exciting scientific developments to look forward to

Robin McKie

02, Jan, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Five planned missions to Mars
Space agencies around the world are set to explore the red planet, while Elon Musk has even grander plans

Tasha Kleeman

02, Dec, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The moon, Mars and beyond… the space race in 2020
Not since the 1960s have we witnessed such appetite for space missions. Here’s what to expect in the year ahead, from commercial launches to Chinese ambitions

Robin McKie

05, Jan, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Is there life on Mars? Not if we destroy it with poor space hygiene
As countries begin an age of Martian exploration, planetary protection advocates insist we must be careful of interplanetary contamination

Stuart Clark

30, Jan, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
China: the new space superpower
For years, its space programme was shrouded in secrecy. Now China is ready for liftoff

Stuart Clark

28, Aug, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
How humans will conquer Mars and beyond
Kevin Fong, who is giving this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on long-distance space travel, says its obstacles will be overcome

Kevin Fong

13, Dec, 2015 @8:30 AM

Article image
The greatest threat to life on Earth may come from space
Asteroids and space debris could wreak untold devastation on the planet

Stuart Clark

31, Aug, 2019 @2:00 PM

Article image
The five: space missions for 2021
After 2020, anyone would be forgiven for wanting to escape Earth, and Mars, the moon and the asteroid belt beckon

Ian Tucker

10, Jan, 2021 @5:30 AM

Article image
The lunar gateway: a shortcut to Mars?
Nasa plans to put a module in orbit around the moon as a springboard for missions to the red planet – and beyond

Robin McKie

22, Sep, 2018 @1:00 PM

Article image
China’s moon mission to boldly go a step further
China may achieve a feat never attempted by the US or USSR – landing on the far side of the moon

Stuart Clark

31, Dec, 2017 @6:59 AM