The Cable

Mars-a-Lago: Can the Trump Administration Get Us Beyond the Moon?

Experts doubt a coherent space policy from the Trump administration.

NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Expedition 28 flight engineer during a planned six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk Jul. 12, 2011. (NASA via Getty Images)
NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Expedition 28 flight engineer during a planned six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk Jul. 12, 2011. (NASA via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Jim Bridenstine, the administration’s pick to head NASA, will face the Senate Commerce Committee. At least one of the major questions facing the nominee will be what sort of space policy the Trump White House will pursue.

Bridenstine, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, has pushed for a greater private industry role in space, reflecting the administration’s preference for commercial activities.

Typically, an administration’s pick to head the space agency “is the real signal” of an administration’s space policy, Lori Garver, former NASA deputy administrator in the Barack Obama administration, told Foreign Policy.

But the Donald Trump administration’s rhetoric has focused on human space exploration, which the space private sector is less suited for than NASA, Garver said.

“America must be as dominant in space as we are here on earth,” Vice President Mike Pence said last month at the first meeting of the National Space Council at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

“We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” he said.

The idea of “Moon to Mars” is not new. In 2004, then-President George W. Bush announced plans to return to the moon as a jumping point to a manned mission to Mars. In 2008, Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, endorsed “sending human missions to the moon by 2020, as a precursor in an orderly progression to missions to more distant destinations including Mars.”

But in 2010, then-President Obama canceled NASA’s Constellation program, which had planned to return American astronauts to the moon, in favor of a low earth orbit “space taxi.” By the end of his term, Moon-by-2020 had become Mars-by-2030s.

President Trump has said he wants Americans on Mars by some point in his second term. In May, his administration proposed a $19.1 billion budget for NASA in the 2018 fiscal year, but that won’t be enough to fund the moon base, let alone a trip to Mars, according to Garver.

Garver questioned whether the Trump administration’s focus on private companies is really suited for getting to Mars. Human space exploration isn’t an obvious fit for commercial space companies that need to profit, she said, even if rockstar CEOs like Elon Musk talk a good game.

“I believe in commercial space for those things that also have a market,” Garver told FP. Though SpaceX predicts trips to Mars in a matter of years, a public entity such as NASA is best suited for that type of ambitious travel, she said.

“Going to the moon? And even more so, going to Mars? NASA’s going to have to lead that and lead it with money,” she said.

W.D. Kay, an associate political science professor at Northeastern University and author of a book about NASA, said it’s hard to find “policy coherence” in the Trump administration’s approach to space policy. “I don’t know that there’s an actual plan in back of all this … and if there is, whose plan it is,” he told FP.

It’s not even clear that President Trump has a specific plan. “I don’t know how deeply he thought about what he wants to do in space,” Kay said.

Human exploration for its own sake would be a bad move, according to James Vedda, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at the Aerospace Corp.

Sending humans back to the moon needs to be motivated by making lasting breakthroughs, he said. Going back to the moon for the wrong reasons would be like “we’re trying to win medals in the Space Olympics,” he said, rather than trying to advance knowledge.

“I wouldn’t get excited about hitting Mars anytime soon,” he said.

John Kester is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter.

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