Why this Democrat is giving Trump a chance on space (if not much else)

Throughout the 2016 campaign, I told people I didn’t think the election outcome would make a huge difference for NASA. I knew the people involved on both sides and we had similar views on several major aspects of what needs to be done to advance the exploration and development of space.

Every government agency and established pool of contractors believes their agency is on the right path and shouldn’t have to change, but that is not what new leadership is about. Even if you believe Hillary Clinton’s team would have come in without a change mandate, the opposite is likely true for Donald Trump, who campaigned on change. Trump’s NASA transition team is likely being given similar direction to what we were given in 2008 – learn everything you can about what is going on in the agency and how we can make improvements.

A lot has been made of how little Trump and Clinton said about space on the campaign trail — and the Trump transition team’s late start setting up shop at NASA Headquarters. Don’t mistake any of this for a lack of an intention or appetite to address NASA and space issues in the four years ahead.

The cherished refrain that “space is not partisan” is going to be put to the test in the Trump administration. Democrats and Republicans have traditionally found common cause when it comes to civil space, forging bipartisan alliances to protect jobs in their districts (which is why I’ve often said space is more parochial than partisan). Over the past few years, however, partisanship has been creeping into congressional funding decisions for NASA and the broader U.S. space program. This Capitol Hill combo of partisanship and parochialism has severely undermined NASA’s ability to advance meaningful and sustainable science and technology objectives. The Trump administration, with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, is likely to ratchet up partisanship. But it also has the opportunity to limit the negative effects of parochialism.

Presidents are, by design, less parochial than Congress. They don’t represent a particular congressional district and are driven to advance ideas and budgets that are, at least in theory, good for America — at least those parts of America likely to re-elect them. President Obama’s first NASA budget request was focused on advancing the long-term objectives of the agency over parochial interests. Even thought it would be politically difficult, he proposed canceling Constellation in order to advance a more sustainable and beneficial future for space.

Congressional attacks on Obama’s initial budget request were both partisan and parochial – but primarily parochial. Although not unexpected, these attacks came just as the Obama administration was focused on holding 60 votes in the Senate for health care and other higher-priority issues. As an astronaut and self-proclaimed Washington outsider, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s perceived lack of enthusiasm for the White House agenda fueled the opposition. Without a champion at NASA or White House willingness to take on these special interests, the administration made a Faustian bargain to secure congressional support for Earth sciences, technology and commercial crew, in exchange for support of Constellation’s SLS and Orion programs.

While these parochial interests still exist, the Republican-controlled Congress, increased political will and influential leadership could give the Trump administration the ability to more effectively advance their agenda in space.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is one President-elect Trump’s most senior advisers. I don’t know what role Speaker Gingrich will play in the Trump administration, but his passionate commitment to space settlement is bound to be part of their space agenda.  Former Congressman Robert Walker and former National Space Council executive director Mark Albrecht are also very senior and seasoned on space issues. Even more importantly, they are like-minded on several key issues:

  • NASA’s bureaucracy and infrastructure is too large and expensive
  • NASA shouldn’t be spending so much money on Earth science
  • The moon is a better and more important next destination than Mars
  • Entrepreneurial space should play a larger role in all aspects
  • Space activities cut across international, civil, military and commercial arenas and should be run out of the White House, by a National Space Council, reporting to Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

The Trump administration has the very real opportunity to move its agenda forward in Congress. That in itself could change the trajectory of the agency — at least some of it for the better.

Lori Garver led the Obama administration’s NASA transition team and served AS NASA deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013.