As President Donald Trump went through the formalities on Tuesday of signing an authorization bill that will give NASA $19.5 billion in funding, it became clear the president, who had only the vaguest idea of a space policy when he was running for president, still isn't terribly interested in exploring outer space.
The bill had bipartisan support and coasted through Congress, but Trump was nonplussed by any talk of actually accomplishing anything in space exploration. When Representative John Culberson of Houston told Trump that the president would be known as the "father of the interplanetary highway system," Trump seemed unimpressed.
"Well, that sounds exciting," Trump replied. "But first we want to fix our highways. We're going to fix our highways."
So far, his lack of focus on the space agency seems to mean NASA is simply maintaining the status quo. Trump values NASA because of the thousands of jobs it brings — he mentioned jobs at least twice during the signing — but he isn't looking to do anything new and different with the space agency.
The authorization bill essentially lines up with the budget plans Trump laid out last week, so NASA is sticking to its plan to finish building the Orion space capsule and the Space Launch System rocket to give the agency a new way to get astronauts into orbit. Then NASA is planning to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, the same basic plan that was laid out under the Obama administration.
There will be a few changes for the space program under the new authorization act. Astronauts will get free monitoring, diagnosis and treatment for all spaceflight-related issues for life under the TREAT Astronauts Act. Meanwhile, the Asteroid Redirect Mission, the Obama administration plan to lasso an asteroid, tow it into orbit nearby and then land astronauts on it, is now officially scrapped. NASA may be chartering rides on commercial spacecraft sooner rather than later, as well. The bill stipulates that NASA astronauts may not hitch a ride on a foreign entity's vehicle unless there are no NASA or commercially owned U.S. spacecrafts available.
In other words, NASA is doing what it already wanted to do.
However, the fact that the president isn't exactly fascinated with the federal space program may not be so convenient for the space agency in the long run. The presidential view of NASA is more important than people may realize, because, as we've 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 president charts the course for NASA. 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 other hand, 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.
With Trump, the lack of attention means that things have slipped through the cracks. On the one hand, the authorization bill neglects to cut NASA's Earth science programs the way other government science program budgets have been slashed. But at the same time, the bill is supposed to focus NASA on getting to Mars, but it doesn't bother to give the agency the extra funding needed to actually get astronauts all the way out there.
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NASA can hum along for now, working toward Mars and enjoying its funding, but it can't run indefinitely without the vision, drive and money that are needed to truly begin to explore the final frontier.
Trump did show a spark of real appreciation for the possibilities of space on Tuesday. He turned to Senator Ted Cruz during the signing, talking about how difficult being an astronaut must be. “I don't know, Ted; would you like to do it?” he asked. “I don't think I would.”
“You could send Congress to space,” Cruz said. (You just know everyone else in that room was wishing Trump could find a way to just send Cruz.)
“We could,” Trump said. “What a great idea that could be.”