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Trump at VAB
President Donald Trump speaks at the Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building after the successful Demo-2 commercial crew launch May 30. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Be careful what you wish for

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For decades, space advocates have sought presidential leadership in space: a commitment by a president and broader administration to make space a priority and take actions accordingly. That belief was rooted in President John F. Kennedy’s public advocacy for NASA and the goal he set of landing humans on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. NASA’s success in achieving that goal cemented that belief, even if, as historical records revealed decades later, that Kennedy personally was not that interested in space.

“With this launch, the decades of lost years and little action are officially over. A new age of American ambition has now begun,” Trump said.

It appears that those advocates finally got what they wanted. Since taking office nearly three and a half years ago, the Trump Administration has given space policy an emphasis not seen by many previous administrations. It reestablished the National Space Council, last active during the first Bush Administration in the early 1990s. It enacted a series of space policy directives on topics ranging from space exploration to regulation of commercial space to space traffic management. After initially opposing a House proposal in 2017 to establish a Space Corps within the Air Force, it called for the establishment of a Space Force—effectively the same thing—that Congress approved in a defense authorization bill enacted last December.

Other than the Space Force, the most visible aspect of the administration’s space policy has been in space exploration. Space Policy Directive 1 in late 2017 instructed NASA to return humans to the Moon, but didn’t set a date. When NASA’s plans to do so by 2028 were criticized by the Space Council’s advisory group as being too slow, Vice President Mike Pence, the point person for space policy in the administration, directed NASA in a March 2019 speech to move up that deadline to the end of 2024.

So when NASA and SpaceX prepared to launch astronauts into orbit from the US for the first time in nearly nine years last month (see “A shaky ride to a smooth launch”, The Space Review, June 1, 2020), it was not surprising to see Pence attend. It was a little more surprising, though, to see President Trump there as well: only two other presidents—Nixon in 1969 and Clinton in 1998—had attended NASA launches. (Obama went to the first launch attempt for STS-134, the penultimate shuttle mission, in 2011, but it was postponed because of technical problems.) After weather scrubbed the first launch attempt May 27, both Pence and Trump returned for the second, and successful, launch attempt three days later.

Speaking in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center shortly after the Demo-2 launch, Trump was ready to take credit for the success of a program that started a decade earlier in the Obama Administration. “With this launch, the decades of lost years and little action are officially over. A new age of American ambition has now begun,” he said.

Many people criticized Trump for taking credit for an accomplishment that predated his administration. It is, though, not a new phenomenon. Throughout his presidency Trump has exaggerated NASA’s condition when he took office and the role he played in changing the agency’s fortunes.

“When I first came into office three and a half years ago, NASA had lost its way, and the excitement, energy, and ambition, as almost everybody in this room knows, was gone,” he said in his KSC speech. “There was grass growing through the cracks of your concrete runways. Not a pretty sight. Not a pretty sight at all.” (Trump has frequently invoked that picture of grass growing in cracked runways, without evidence that runways at KSC or other NASA facilities had significantly deteriorated.)

He offered similar comments to a press pool immediately after watching the launch. “Four years ago, this place was essentially shut down,” he said, referring to KSC. “The space program was over. The shuttle program was dead. One of the Secret Servicemen said they were here with the past administration—I won’t tell you who—and they were here to shut down the facility.” Of course, four years ago there were no plans to close KSC, which at the time in the process of its transformation into what it calls a “multi-user spaceport” that includes NASA and private operators.

Bolden said he passed along some advice to his successor at NASA, Bridenstine: “Take credit for everything that happens on your watch, because none of us started anything. We all picked up something that was being done by somebody before.”

Trump, in his speech, mentioned the goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024 and later human missions to Mars. (Recall that NASA placed a new emphasis on Mars after Trump complained in a tweet a year ago that NASA should be focusing on Mars, rather than the Moon.) “Since I signed the order to establish these goals shortly after taking office, we have made rapid gains,” he said. “A new 22,000-pound [10,000-kilogram] capsule is already built. The next generation of space suits are already made. Colossal rockets are now being tested. And the contracts for three separate lunar landers have been awarded and signed, and they are magnificent.”

That capsule, Orion, is indeed complete, but work on it started years ago, and the Orion program dates all the way back to the mid-200s, in the administration of President George W. Bush. New spacesuits for lunar missions are still in development, and the “colossal rocket” being tested, an apparent reference to the Space Launch System, is years behind schedule.

Of course, the idea of one administration taking credit for the accomplishments of past administrations is not new. “I share the praise of anybody who’s been involved in advancing spaceflight for the US,” former NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a call with reporters May 26. In that call, he said he passed along some advice to his successor, Jim Bridenstine: “Take credit for everything that happens on your watch, because none of us started anything. We all picked up something that was being done by somebody before.”

What does the future hold?

While the idea of taking credit for past accomplishments is not new, the higher profile the Trump Administration has given to space has carries risks. The more closely space policy, including high-profile efforts like human space exploration, is associated with this administration, the more likely it will be treated less favorably by the next administration.

Space advocates on both sides of the aisle have long argued that space is bipartisan, nonpartisan, or simply apolitical. “Our budgets are going up. They’re going up rapidly. My job is to make sure that we have the bipartisan, apolitical support to achieve those objectives, and so far we have been able to do that,” Bridenstine said at a May 31 press conference after the Crew Dragon docked with the space station.

There is some truth to that, as battles over NASA programs and budgets have often been over parochial rather than partisan lines: politicians in Florida, Texas, Alabama, and elsewhere looking to favor local interests. Last year, when NASA decided to place the program office for the Human Landing System lunar lander effort at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the strongest criticism came from Republican members of Congress from Texas, who argued it should be based at the Johnson Space Center.

There are already signs of a backlash against the administration. Last Wednesday, the Trump reelection campaign posted a video to its YouTube channel: a 2-minutes, 36-second ad titled “Make Space Great Again” (or, in the title used on YouTube, “MAKE SPACE GREAT AGAIN!”) The ad mixed historical images, primarily from the Apollo program, and a JFK voiceover, with video from the Demo-2 launch and a Trump voiceover.

Oddly, rather than using Trump’s speech at KSC right after the launch, it used one from a speech nearly two years earlier, when he spoke at a National Space Council meeting at the White House. “Once more, we will launch intrepid souls blazing through the sky and soaring into the heavens,” he said in that earlier speech used in the ad, days after those intrepid souls had been launched.

“I find it disturbing that a video image of me and my son is being used in political propaganda without my knowledge or consent. That is wrong,” Nyberg said of the Trump ad.

The ad, though, prompted criticism that the campaign was taking credit for a program that predated his administration, and for seeking a distraction amid the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racism and police violence in many American cities. A petition on sought the ad’s removal, arguing that Trump taking credit for the Demo-2 mission “is an insult to the work of the teams that meaningfully contributed to its success.”

Moreover, the ad appeared to violate NASA media guidelines. The video included extensive footage of the two Demo-2 astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, along with their families; SpaceX founder Elon Musk and other company employees were also in the ad from that NASA footage. However, NASA’s guidelines state that “current NASA employees, including astronauts, may not appear in commercial material.”

One person in the Trump ad clearly objected. “I find it disturbing that a video image of me and my son is being used in political propaganda without my knowledge or consent. That is wrong,” tweeted Karen Nyberg, Hurley’s wife and herself a former astronaut, on Thursday.

Within two hours of Nyberg’s tweet, the campaign removed the ad, which, despite the controversy, had attracted less than 30,000 views on a platform where popular ones garner millions. The campaign did not respond to questions about the ad. (While the campaign pulled down the ad, it lives on elsewhere; nothing on the Internet is ever truly deleted.)

Trump’s comments, and the campaign ad, have caused some in the industry to privately worry that space policy may become more partisan, and that a future Democratic administration might reverse the policies, regardless of their benefits, because of their association with the current administration.

The campaign of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has not offered its own space policy vision. After the Demo-2 launch, Biden did release a statement about it. “This mission represents the culmination of work begun years ago, and which President Obama and I fought hard to ensure would become a reality,” he wrote.

The statement offered only the broadest of views about his space policy visions. “As President, I look forward to advancing America’s commitment to pursuing space exploration and unlocking scientific discoveries that will inspire a new generation of dreamers to gaze up at the sky and imagine all that our future may hold,” he said, a statement that almost any presidential candidate over the last several decades could have made.

The call with former NASA administrator Bolden before the Demo-2 launch was organized by the Biden campaign and also featured former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). Asked during the call what they thought a Biden Administration might do in space policy, Nelson said, in effect, that it was too soon to speculate.

“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” he said, arguing that the focus should be on the commercial crew launch. “Let’s get through this. That’s the wisest thing.”

Bolden, though, hoped that a Biden Administration would continue NASA’s human space exploration efforts, including the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon. “We hope that whoever follows the Trump Administration, and my hope is that it’ll be a Biden Administration, they will continue to march the way that we’re headed now, heading back to the Moon and then on to Mars,” he said.

“I am hopeful that this administration and the next will continue to work with Congress to get the funding that’s needed to keep the Artemis program,” he added.

Bridenstine says it’s unlikely that Congress will cut NASA’s budget even amid growing concerns about massive budget deficits created by the pandemic relief bills. But not getting a cut, and getting a 12% budget increase, are two different things.

Some clues about what Congress is thinking about Artemis will come soon. Normally by this time of year, House and Senate appropriators have started work on their spending bills for the next fiscal year. However, the coronavirus pandemic has delayed that work, as members focused on relief measures during the brief times they have been in session the last three months.

There are signs, though, that appropriators will turn their attention to fiscal year 2021 spending bills. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said May 29 that the House would spend the month of June primarily in committee meetings. Appropriators in particular, he stated, “will continue to hold necessary COVID-19 oversight hearings before beginning subcommittee and full-committee markups at the end of June and beginning of July.”

That suggests there may be few hearings reviewing budget proposals, including NASA’s budget, prior to marking up spending bills in about a month. Despite changes in procedures to enable remote hearings, House appropriators have only one hearing scheduled for this week, regarding how the Indian Health Service has responded to the pandemic. Senate appropriators, meanwhile, have not scheduled any hearings for this week or beyond.

NASA administrator Bridenstine has boasted about his 2021 budget proposal, which at $25.2 billion is a 12% increase from what the agency received in 2020. He’s argued that, given the economic impacts of the pandemic, it’s unlikely that Congress will cut NASA’s budget even amid growing concerns about massive budget deficits created by the pandemic relief bills.

But not getting a cut, and getting a 12% budget increase, are two different things. A flat budget for NASA would likely eliminate any chance NASA has of making that 2024 lunar landing goal. Moreover, Congress will likely seek to reverse proposals in the budget request to cancel missions like PACE, SOFIA, and WIFRST, as well as close NASA’s education office, which combined approach $1 billion. That money will have to come from somewhere, and if NASA’s overall spending isn’t increased, the exploration program becomes a target.

In the end, no amount of rhetoric can make up for a lack of money, regardless of whatever goals in space this administration, and the next, have in space.

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