Space is the final frontier and all, but as this feces-flinging circus train of a 2016 presidential election stumbles toward an inglorious conclusion, policy has barely been discussed in general. And when it comes to what presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have in mind for U.S. space policy, there's been even less scrutiny.
Their respective views of NASA are more important than people may realize, because, as we've recently noted, government support of NASA and space exploration has hinged on who is in the White House ever since President Dwight Eisenhower responded to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik by establishing the federal space agency in 1958.
The way it works, the president comes up with a budget proposal for NASA each year, setting the space agency's agenda, and sends the budget to Congress for approval. Filling this role gives the president huge influence on what goals NASA pursues and how well-funded various programs actually are, as we've pointed out before.
For instance, when President John F. Kennedy announced the United States was going to the moon "not because it is easy, but because it is hard," he got public opinion and thus Congress behind him in one fell swoop. By 1969, Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon.
On the flip side, when President Barack Obama asked Congress to cut the return-to-the-moon program, Constellation, legislators agreed and NASA was left without a clear mission. Worse yet, once the space shuttle was retired, the agency didn't even have its own way to get astronauts to the International Space Station.
With all the hubbub about the various scandals, controversies and surprises of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, the candidates' approaches to NASA haven't exactly been front and center in this race. But this isn't because they don't have stances on the final frontier.
Clinton: Totally Into Space Exploration
Clinton has a long history with NASA, albeit a slightly complicated one. Clinton was about 13 when Kennedy announced the Apollo program, and she was so excited about the idea of space travel that she wrote a letter to NASA telling the agency about herself and asking what it would take to become an astronaut, according to the story she's often told on the campaign trail. NASA responded by telling Clinton that girls weren't allowed to be astronauts. Clinton was furious at the time. Luckily, NASA has since gotten significantly more female-friendly — half the most recent class of astronaut candidates accepted are women — but there's always a chance she could hold a grudge.
But otherwise, it looks like her NASA policy will be pretty darned pro-NASA. For starters, she's into the plan to send people to Mars, though she has said that it has to be done safely and with as little risk to the astronauts involved as possible, as she noted in a thoughtful and detailed response to a set of questions on space policy that Space News submitted to both candidates in October.
She's also down with continuing to use NASA to work on Earth science research, like climate change. Obama was slow to warm to the exploration aspect of the federal space program, but he emphasized gaining knowledge about our own planet. (His funding requests allocating large chunks of money to study climate change led to a lot of scrapping with Congress.)
Clinton is on board to keep looking at climate change and plans on letting NASA do more work with scientists around the globe to increase our understanding of what's happening to our planet and how we can best handle it.
The money that the federal government gives NASA has often been a source of dispute. Right now, about half of 1 percent of the annual federal budget goes to the space agency, and even though that figure translates to more than $19 billion, the reality is that NASA is still having to pick and choose how the annual cash injections from the government actually get used.
As companies like SpaceX and Orbital have begun to establish themselves in the private sector, NASA has shifted its policy to let the commercial space industry step in when it comes to things like toting supplies to the International Space Station, as we reported. In fact, in the coming decade, NASA is going to let commercial interests take over the ISS itself if anybody wants it. And the agency hopes the commercial arm of the industry will step in with other less sexy stuff so that NASA can focus on first lassoing an asteroid and then getting astronauts to Mars.
Clinton looks to be okay with the public and private sectors splitting the space program like this. Still, she's made it clear (well, relatively, since she speaks in fluent politician-ese) she's fine with the commercial space industry doing its part, but feels the work of "discovery and research" is only a job for the government, as she noted in a New Hampshire town hall appearance last year. So under Clinton's watch, it looks as if NASA won't be taking a backseat to the efforts of Elon Musk, Jeffrey Bezos and the other movers and shakers in the private space industry.
Despite that whole NASA-rejected-her kerfuffle, Clinton is still into supporting a public space program. She's even got plans and ideas about how she'll go about it. Plus, she's actually committed to figuring out if UFOs exist. So she's thought this whole thing out.
Trump: Totally Into Exploring Space but Not Paying for It. Maybe.
Trump's stance on space is a bit less cohesive.
He's griped about Obama's cutting NASA's budget on Twitter over the years, and has said he admires what NASA represents, but if Trump becomes president, it doesn't seem like he really has a well-thought-out space policy. A ten-year-old boy asked him about his take on NASA during a town hall last year and Trump basically said NASA isn't his focus. “Right now, we have bigger problems — you understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes,” he told the kid.
When it comes to the trip to the asteroid and then Mars, Trump has said it's low on the list of things that need to get done compared to infrastructure and other problems. (So maybe this is code to mean he'll have that massive wall to build and bill Mexico for right off the bat?)
When Space News asked Trump what he thinks of these plans, he was even more noncommittal. "After taking office, we will have a comprehensive review of our plans for space, and will work with Congress to set both priorities and mission," Trump told the magazine.
That should be an interesting talk, but it may not bode well for NASA's Mars ambitions. Congress is inconsistent in its support for the mission. Sometimes it praises NASA and hands over lots of funding; other times it scolds the agency for fiddling around and wasting time and money on this dream of getting to the Red Planet.
The same goes with what Trump will do regarding NASA's Earth science work. He stays in keeping with the GOP line by pointing out there are other things Earth science can be used for aside from studying climate change, but he didn't say what work he'd support, and once again ducked behind the old I-simply-must-consult-Congress excuse.
Overall, Trump seems to be much more into the idea of private industry continuing to take the lead on space exploration. He said during another town hall that he “likes that maybe even better” than a public space program. So yeah, under Trump it's sounding like the government space program isn't going to be getting a lot of love or funding. Or at least that's what we can glean from what little he's been willing to say.
In fact, ever since Trump defied the odds to become the Republican nominee, he's gotten more circumspect about what he will and won't do with the space program. When asked about the public/private sector relationship, he's stuck with the line that he'll have to consult with Congress first.
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The thing is, this is a crucial angle on what will or won't happen to the public space program. And it could have far-reaching implications, since we've already had multiple exploding rockets in the private sector to remind us all that spaceflight is tricky and NASA has gotten good at it only through decades of fine-tuning and practice. Dodging an actual answer to this is particularly exasperating, since the entire forward momentum of space exploration in the United States could hinge on how into the idea of going to space this man is.
But that's pretty much all that Trump has said lately on the space subject, which is troubling.
Saying you're going to talk with Congress and declining to say with any clarity or detail what exactly your space policy is does not count as an actual space policy. Let's hope Congress is in the mood to still have NASA's back — this year, in a rare moment of agreement, both Obama and Congress moved to increase NASA's funding by a lot, indicating some congressional esteem for what NASA's been up to recently — because if Trump is elected, it sounds like the federal space agency is going to need their support.
The best part of it is it may not even be because Trump is against NASA, but simply because he doesn't seem to have any real space policy at all.