Key NASA issues for Trump’s administration

In the days since Donald Trump’s election, there’s been intense speculation about what a Trump administration will do about space.

Policy statements issued by the Trump campaign ahead of the election provided only broad outlines of what a Trump space policy might look like. The post-election transition has shed little light beyond speculation of who the next NASA administrator could be.

Regardless of who takes over NASA, he or she (perhaps in coordination with a reconstituted National Space Council) will face some key issues early in the next administration. What decisions they make will shape civil space policy for at least the next four years, and perhaps much longer.

 Whither ARM?

Perhaps the least-loved element of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” plan is its Asteroid Redirect Mission.Since its introduction in 2013, it’s faced skepticism from scientists and criticism from Congress about its effectiveness in supporting long-term plans for human missions to Mars. A House version of a 2017 spending bill for NASA withholds funding for ARM.

Even before the election, many speculated that the next administration might cancel ARM, perhaps to put more emphasis on lunar missions. The Trump campaign’s space policy was silent on this topic, but it could be an early test for the new administration: NASA is set to award a contract for the bus for the ARM robotic spacecraft in March.

Earth science in the balance

One thing that was clear in the campaign’s space policy was a desire to shift NASA’s emphasis from Earth science to exploration. That’s a position that’s shared by many Republicans in Congress who’ve criticized NASA for asking for increased Earth science funding and suggested other agencies were better suited to do that work.

Any effort to reduce NASA Earth science funding will face obstacles, though, particularly in the Senate, where past efforts to cut Earth science have failed. Should the Trump team go through with such a move, it might not free any money for exploration: even the campaign’s policy adviser, Robert Walker, acknowledged there would need to be “budget adjustments” if Earth science work moved to an agency like NOAA.

SLS and Orion

Critics of NASA’s two flagship exploration programs, Orion and the Space Launch System, note the campaign’s policy made no mention of either. That’s read as a sign the Trump administration might be open to revamping or even canceling them.

In the near term, at least, that seems unlikely.Members of the president’s own party in particular Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a key appropriator and defender of the SLS, would oppose the move. A more probable approach may be to let the programs continue for at least a couple of years, through the first SLS launch in late 2018, and see how well they are doing in terms of budget and schedule before revisiting them.

The future of the ISS

Assuming ESA formally approves an extension at next month’s ministerial meeting, all of the International Space Station partners will have finally endorsed keeping the station going through 2024. Given it took nearly three years to win a four-year extension, the new administration may soon have to start thinking about a further renewal.

That could open the door for greater commercial participation in ISS, especially if any international partners decide not to continue past 2024. NASA is already studying offering one docking port on the ISS for a commercial module. Another ISS extension could allow a more gradual transition to commercial space stations, but also potentially compete with them as well.

While these may appear to be some of the key issues for NASA in the next administration, there’s no guarantee they’ll act on them. After all, conventional wisdom hasn’t done so well this year.