NASA, making space great again

It will be difficult to tear your eyes away from the drama unfolding on Earth in 2017. But what might Donald Trump mean for Americans in space?

Traditionally, transitions are a time to set new destinations. When President Obama took office, he axed the Constellation program, which would have sent astronauts to the moon, and set his sights on Mars. NASA has been working toward a human mission to the Red Planet with a pit stop at an asteroid, though the agency looks unlikely to meet its 2030s deadline at current levels of funding.

Trump’s election could signal a pivot back to the moon – a destination historically favoured by Republicans. During the campaign, Trump offered few specifics about his vision for NASA but said the agency should focus on exploring deep space and being “inspirational.” A new moon mission would meet those criteria. It would be an infrastructure project for the ages, one that fit with Team Trump’s nostalgia for bygone moments of American “greatness.” Plus, there is international interest in building a lunar base, and studies suggest that such a base could be a (comparatively) cheap way station en route to Mars.

NASA has already been working on a heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule – spacecraft that could be retooled for a potential moon mission. If the moon is Trump’s goal, we might expect to hear about it during his first 100 days, when most presidents set their agendas.

Then again, the president-elect’s emphasis on reining in the budget might mean that NASA goes nowhere in the next four years. Funding for the agency has historically tracked with overall non-defense discretionary spending, which Trump plans to cut to historic lows. Even if most of NASA’s budget stays intact, there’s a good chance the space agency’s Earth-observing programs will be slashed – bad news for climate scientists, meteorologists and others who rely on data from NASA satellites.

The year could also be big for private space explorers. Moon Express has permission to launch a commercial lunar lander; if it happens, it will be the first private mission to ever leave Earth’s orbit. SpaceX is slated to shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station – the first crewed space station launch from U.S. soil in years. And Blue Origin (whose owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post) is racing to catch up; the company wants to put astronauts in space by the end of the year.

A scientist would caution against drawing conclusions without data, and Trump hasn’t given us much data to work with. For now, space-watchers will have to do what they have always done: wonder what’s out there as they contemplate the chilly unknown.

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