The Trump Administration, with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, has the opportunity to significantly change NASA and the space program for better or for worse, depending on your perspective. Space has typically been more parochial than partisan, however several issues have recently become partisan.
The most partisan aspect of NASA’s budget has been funding for Earth Sciences. Attacks from the right have slowed the government’s overall ability to monitor and understand our changing climate. The Trump Administration will almost certainly request much smaller budgets for Earth Sciences, and those cuts are likely to be supported by the House and Senate. Comparative planetary climate studies, green technologies, environmentally efficient aeronautics, and funding to projects in Blue States (the few that remain) are all at risk.
Candidate Trump has made several positive statements about the benefits of commercial space and has said nothing about much else, including SLS and Orion. More importantly, his close relationship with former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich signals a move to an entirely different type of space program. Former Congressman Robert Walker’s op-ed, on behalf of the campaign shows a willingness of the Trump team to change the trajectory of the agency – away from parochialism, with the possibility of faster progress.
If President Trump chooses a NASA Administrator aligned with the Gingrich/Walker positions, they will likely attempt to move a very different agenda forward in Congress. But the return of Mike Griffin (a former NASA Administrator under George W. Bush), would signal a different kind of change. The selection of Mark Albrecht, former head of the National Space Council, to lead the development of the NASA transition team, signals more alignment with Gingrich than Griffin. Mark was the energy behind the new way of thinking about space in the first Bush Administration. His choice for NASA Administrator back then was Dan Goldin. Albrecht and Goldin ran hard at streamlining the bureaucracy and although it didn’t make them too popular at the time, their efforts cleared the way for more sustainable science and technology efforts.
A Gingrich/Walker aligned NASA leadership team would likely advance an agenda that increases support for entrepreneurial space and re-focuses NASA on the Moon as the next human destination. Neither are big supporters of spending billions of dollars on large, government programs, numerous programs would be reviewed for possible cancellation or adjustment such as SLS, Orion, ISS, Mars 2020 etc. A Griffin return would also likely refocus NASA’s human exploration goals on the Moon, but would be more open to continuing SLS and Orion, at the expense of ISS. Either agenda would almost certainly include continuation of the commercial crew program.
Some level of international cooperation would certainly continue, but with possible shifts in emphasis. Geopolitics plays a huge role in human spaceflight. The opportunity to compete or cooperate with different parts of the world could be meaningful. Beating China (back) to the Moon might become a goal for the program.
Of course none of these significant changes will move forward without congressional support. We’ll have to see if the Hill decides to be more partisan, supporting a new Republican President’s space agenda, or whether parochial interests carry the day. It will likely be a bit of both – partisan on Earth sciences and parochial on district pork. Whether the Trump Administration decides to strongly support its own space agenda on Capitol Hill is of critical importance. The campaign promise to re-establish the National Space Council sends a signal that they intend to make it a priority.