Donald Trump added six more people to his NASA transition team on Friday, it’s not looking good for anybody who wants to see NASA continue its scientific research. It’s looking increasingly likely that a Trump administration will seek to slash the agency’s budget, in favor of providing an bigger window for private companies.
In short, private companies send up telecommunications satellites, they don’t launch satellites that study global weather patterns to better understand the destructive force of hurricanes, just to cite an example that’s happening right now.
Since starting his campaign, Trump and his advisors have been quiet about the incoming administration’s plans for NASA and U.S. space policy — other than Mike Pence promises about making space great again — but there have been two policy changes made explicit by the campaign:
- Increase U.S. military assets in space.
- Potentially decrease federal spending on space exploration to encourage the commercial industry to fill that void.
The former objective seemed to take much more solid shape after Trump announced Chris Shank as the lead for the NASA transition team, as well as Mark Albrecht to the defense department transition team. The newest additions to Shanks team suggest Trump is serious about the latter goal as well.
Perhaps the most discouraging addition to the NASA team is Greg Autry, an University of Southern California professor of entrepreneurship, who has been bullish about the potential for the commercial space industry to usher in a new era of space exploration despite how many exploding Falcon 9 rockets rain down on Earth.
Autry has in particularly derided the Space Launch System, the rocketry system NASA is building that will help launch bigger payloads into deep space, in anticipation of a crewed mission to Mars.
“We will discontinue spending on Space Launch System, a giant government rocket, lacking both innovation and a mission,” he writes in an op-ed on Forbes in October. “While SLS has consumed the largest single piece of NASA’s budget for years, private sector operators like SpaceX and Blue Origin have leapfrogged it with more efficient, reusable boosters.”
The companies founded by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively, have shown a surprising amount of access with reusable rockets — and this is essential for making spaceflight cheaper and more accessible to the rest of the world — but those companies are nowhere near ready to take on launches that aim to get spacecraft beyond Earth’s orbit. To say those companies have “leapfrogged” NASA isn’t quite right: while the companies can do reusable rockets, they still can’t launch past Earth’s orbit.
Another addition to the transition team is Steve Cook, the former head of the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rocket programs (scrapped by President Obama in favor of SLS). Cook has since worked in rocket design in the private sector, and might also be more keen to allow the private sector to fulfill NASA’s rocket needs.
The other four new members of the transition team are:
- Jack Burns, a University of Colorado professor and senior vice president of the American Astronomical Society
- Rodney Liesveld, a former NASA policy advisor
- Sandy Magnus, former NASA astronaut and executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
- Jeff Waksman, a former research fellow at the U.S. House of Representatives
We’ll have to wait and see exactly what kind of cuts and changes NASA will endure. If space exploration takes a significant hit, we might expect to see less U.S. spacecraft jetting off for other worlds and more ESA landers making crash landings on those rocks instead.