The Future of Science in Trump's America

Depending on November's outcome, NASA could look like a completely different agency within four years.

Getty Images / Drew Angerer

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was pretty scant on much of anything related to science and tech, save for an absurd exchange about “the cyber,” aka cyber security.

But there was one topic Lester Holt might have glossed over: international space policy. That’s right, the real international wheeling and dealing action is going on not on our humble planet but out in the galactic. The International Space Station is an important — but shaky — cog keeping American and Russian relations from completely falling apart. Let’s not forget the strides allies like the European Space Agency and rivals like China are making in spaceflight as well. Hell, Luxembourg wants to become a space miner’s Mecca.

For all these reasons and more, space policy will be an important part of the next president’s plans. A recent science and tech questionnaire sent to the four major presidential candidates illustrates exactly where the candidates agree, where they differ, and hints at what the future of space might look like just a couple of years from now once one of them is sworn in.

Hillary Clinton

Clinton’s response on space policy was one of the most detailed. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise — the former Secretary of State has been pretty effusive about wanting to increase NASA’s budget, and has shown in the past few decades a keen interest in extraterrestrial life.

In her answer to the space question, Clinton name-drops every major astrophysics concept from black holes to exoplanets to dark matter, and goes out of her way to emphasize how a space program includes programs to “monitor our ozone layer and the catastrophic impact of global climate change.” She even mentions planetary defense, alluding to the identification and mapping of “near-Earth asteroids as a first step to protect our planet from a major asteroid impact.”

Her response includes the vague promises to promote and support space exploration, but her specific plans include to express desire to “work with Congress to ensure that NASA has the leadership, funding and operational flexibility necessary to work in new ways with industry, placing emphasis on inventing and employing new technologies and efficiencies to get more bang for the buck while creating jobs and growing the American economy.”

And let’s not forget Mars: “A goal of my administration will be to expand this knowledge even further and advance our ability to make human exploration of Mars a reality.”

Overall, Clinton’s space policy is perhaps not so different from presidents past — the goal is to continue giving NASA what it asks for in order to ensure the U.S. maintains the most powerful space program in the world. In other words — maintain a status quo.

This is still very short on specifics — and it may turn out her administration takes an active role like her predecessor and nixes an entire program (RIP Constellation) in favor of a something else (hey there, Orion and Journey to Mars). But what’s clear is that it won’t be a downsizing of NASA — simply a reorganization of priorities to better fit an overall vision.

Donald Trump

The Republican nominee’s answer was just one paragraph long, and was even worse about specifics than Clinton’s response.

Trumps record on space has been better illustrated from his comments from the past. We’ve already summarized them, so it’s little use to dwell on them again, but the overall point is that a Trump administration would probably seek to decrease NASA’s budget, and instead prop up support for the private spaceflight industry — which is growing, but still exhibits a ton of reasons for concern due to a lack of oversight and a penchant for risk- taking.

Congress doesn’t seem to want to take chances of a Trump presidency screwing around with a good thing — especially with the Mars mission now front and center as NASA’s main focus. Without naming Trump, Congress passed an authorization bill with bipartisan support which would basically make it much more difficult for future presidencies to gut funding for the Journey to Mars.

Gary Johnson

The Libertarian candidate sticks to his brand. His very brief response states, “the private sector has access to far more resources than the public, so we welcome private participation and even dominance in space exploration.”

In other words, don’t be surprised if a president Johnson were to basically turn NASA into a hobbled shadow of what it once was — or even shutter it entirely — in favor of allowing SpaceX and others to fill the vacuum. It’s unclear what the specific consequences would be, but considering the fact that private companies aren’t yet ready to take over what NASA currently does, you can expect the U.S. to lose its position as the leader of space.

Jill Stein

Stein’s positions also hedge closely to what her Green Party is all about — peace, environmentalism, and cooperation. She makes specific calls to bolster NASA’s work in climate science research. In addition, she lays out a few points of actual steps her administration would try to take.

The most unique action would be “signing of the International Treaty for the Demilitarization of Space.”

That’s not a real thing. Stein is either referring to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty — which the U.S. has signed — or the proposed 2006 Space Preservation Treaty — which the U.S. voted against. The latter called for a ban against all space weapons (the official U.S. line is that the country’s own assets would be compromised by the treaty).

Stein’s willingness to sign the resolution would be a significant pivot in American foreign policy. Advances in weapons technology would probably put pressure on the U.S. to break the treaty in the future.

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