That’s One Small Comment For Trump, One Giant Miscue For Space Exploration

NASA needs a firm hand and leadership with a vision if we want it to land people on Mars. It’s not going to get it anytime soon.

Space station overlooking Mars (SpaceX promotional photo)

Space station overlooking Mars (SpaceX promotional photo)

When the American space program as we know it today began, it had a single, overriding mission: to deliver astronauts to the surface of our natural satellite. That mission was summed up by JFK’s famous speech that tried to capture the spirit of American curiosity and competitiveness in the now immortal words so many of us fascinated with space can recite on the spot: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And the rest of that speech was just as inspiring, outlining why Americans need to dedicate the time and effort to explore space; to test their technology, mettle, and yes, of course, to beat the Soviets. The Soviets were then winning the space race but driven by the Community Party’s emphasis on PR over results, were starting to get dangerously distracted. Ultimately, that was why they lost.

But NASA’s success in its original mission has been a double edged sword. A dozen men walked on the Moon, and politicians, happy to beat those damn godless Reds promptly mothballed the whole lunar program and shelved all the grand plans the agency had to establish permanent bases and set sights on Mars. Since then, several presidents toyed with the idea of Mars missions and returning to the Moon. They were never actually all that serious, which was obvious from their long timelines and carefully hedged language. If we took all those speeches, we could sum them up with “we should get to Mars but you know, take your time, no rush.” But in his chat with astronauts on board the ISS, President Trump decided to take this flippant approach to a whole new level after asking for NASA’s plans for landing on Mars.

Dissatisfied with the given timeline of mid-2030s, maybe, if there’s funding, he quipped “Well, we want to try and do it during my first term, or at worst during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, OK?” Now, if you’re familiar with some of the technological and medical challenges in getting humans to Mars, you probably facepalmed. If NASA dropped pretty much everything it’s doing, got triple its budget, partnered with SpaceX and all the ULA members to avoid having to build rockets from scratch, maybe, hopefully, they would be ready to launch a mission in a decade. Going to a whole other planet is one of the hardest things humans can do today, and for a president trying slash all science budgets to the bone to tell our space agency to turn science fiction into reality on his timeline is infuriating.

Just consider how little thought he put into that directive. Does he know of the research still needed to make sure the astronauts could make it to Mars without dying of radiation poisoning? Is he aware that NASA’s SLS may not be ready for a Mars mission for a long time? Would he be willing to fight a Congress pushing for the SLS as a jobs program — it’s been often called the Senate Launch System for a reason — to reallocate the funds towards space exploration architectures like SpaceX’s ambitious, but totally workable ITS concept? Will he back down from his quest to cut science budgets so NASA and the NIH can do the proper biomedical research? Will he commit to the missions over the long term instead of just making them just flag-planting exercises, selling the program as the boon for jobs and the economy it can be if planned properly with a private enterprise/public science mix?

Let’s be real here, we know the answer to all those questions. We saw how lackadaisical Trump is about even the most basic high level details of what he actually seems to care about during the ACHA debacle. If he couldn’t be bothered to figure out that healthcare is “very complicated” and the expert he relied on to fix it didn’t seem to understand how insurance works, what hope do we have of him being serious about rolling up his sleeves to learn about space exploration? It’s literally rocket science! Alternatively, you may be saying to yourself, maybe he didn’t even mean it literally. He just said it because he knew it would get attention and if NASA never made it, there won’t be any task force to get them on track to launch, or more money in the budget to make the mission happen. And that’s even worse.

Politicians are often quite cynical when it comes to space exploration. It we get brutally honest with ourselves, the only reason why we have humans in space today is because a brilliant Russian designer who really loved sci-fi in which humans traveled to the Moon and Mars, managed to one day talk a general into a PR stunt, and an ex-Nazi rocket scientist brought to America to build ICBMs convinced the United States to respond in kind. That’s quite literally what happened. But when we actually started going into space, we discovered that faced with a new frontier to explore, our ancestral curiosity and ambition once again fired up. We like novelty, our brains evolved with an actual reward circuit for it. Realizing that we could actually walk on the Moon and have outposts on Mars with our rapidly growing knowhow was exhilarating, and our politicians know that, which is why they like to bring up space as one of the few remaining, unifying topics in our lives.

Now it’s true that space exploration is not universally popular and there’s a large contingent of people who think that whatever we spend on it is way, way too much, as if NASA stacks billions of dollars into a rocket’s payload faring as a shock absorber, and launches that money into orbit or beyond. In reality, almost all of the money is spent on Earth, creating jobs and all sorts of new technology licensed to companies for everything from making better shoes, to improving high speed communication networks for entertainment and business. Lawmakers know this, which is why they insist that NASA has to have a footprint in their districts to generate high paying and prestigious jobs, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. And while people complain and think that we spend a quarter of our budget on NASA while we really spend less than 1% of it, they generally do like the end result.

Unfortunately, this leaves the space agency dealing with mixed signals that have failed to translate into direction and policy for 40 years now. Boldly go and explore! But on budget! No, not that much budget! Ok, a little more but only if you do it in my district. Inspire people! Aim high! No, not that high, save costs if you’re going to aim for anything. No, not like that, not by taking away a facility in my district! And Trump’s far more than likely throwaway instruction adds even more confusion to the utter chaos that’s been passing for our space exploration policy over the years. Are we going to Mars? Is it a good time to start asking for more money? Do we speed up research or slow everything down to get more certainty in what we’re doing next? Should we draw up plans to partner with SpaceX and ULA or will we build something ourselves from parts we’ve built before?

This is the thing Trump doesn’t seem to understand. He’s not just a private citizen anymore. He can’t just say things to officials and representatives of a large agency and expect them not to take it seriously, or at least start acting as if they were just given a task. He’s not negotiating a deal with NASA for sending humans to Mars, that’s not his job. His job is to set a clear policy to either do something or not, not ruminate in public and shoot the breeze on questions of literally global importance. He wants his name on huge, flashy achievements, but he doesn’t want to do the hard work of setting goals and following through on them. He wants popularity, fame, and power, but he wants to just have them and enjoy them, he doesn’t want to work for them and use them. This attitude translates into his total lack of policy zeal and delegation of basically everything to others. And now it’s making its way to NASA which will likely spend his time in office scratching its head, existing mostly as a pork factory for lawmakers and a SpaceX customer.

Politech // Donald Trump / NASA / Politics / Science