NASA used to be an organization that every American could look to with pride. We used to champion innovation, aspire to traverse the final frontier, and yearn for discovery. Now, after years of kicking the proverbial space-can down the road, NASA is unfocused, confused, and hemorrhaging money. However, with Trump’s recent announcement to return to the Moon, the space community is optimistic, albeit cautiously, that NASA will return to its Apollo-era days of inspiration.
To understand how the bloated, distorted state of NASA came to be, one needs to begin with George Bush’s presidency. Following the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia on the mission STS-107 in 2003, Bush pivoted the focus of NASA away from the Space Shuttles and toward the Moon. Constellation, as the initiative was called, was a program designed to return American to the lunar surface. It consisted of two new rockets, the Ares I and Ares V, as well as a new crew capsule called Orion and a lander called Altair. Congress decided that while it wanted to cut the Space Shuttle program since it was nearing the end of its viable lifetime, it would continue to fund the program until Constellation was ready. What should have been a red flag that Constellation was not viable was that NASA was operating with less than half the budget that it did to go to the Moon than during the Apollo era. A lack of existing infrastructure compounded the issue by making Constellation even more expensive.
When Barack Obama became President, he put Constellation on pause for five years to divert funds towards his education policy. Eventually, though, Obama reneged on his promise to restart Constellation and cancelled it outright. His logic was remarkably shortsighted—he claimed that we shouldn’t go back to the moon because “we’ve been there before!” Jason Rhian of Space Flight Insider described the comment as “poorly though out” because Obama’s logic would “[suggest] that someone who visits a small town in South Carolina ‘has been’ to the United States.” Moreover, writing off the Moon for further exploration after having been there for only a little over three days is ludicrous. There is so much to be learned from the moon, whether it is perfecting ascent and descent procedures, studies on the effect of living in microgravity environments, or even methods for water production. After Obama scrapped Constellation, Congress, in a rare show of bipartisanship, ordered NASA to develop the Space Launch System, which is a rocket that derives much of its technology from the terminated Ares V, aimed at bringing humans and cargo further into space. Obama’s new vision was a project called the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) where humans would eventually travel to an asteroid by the moon that would be retrieved by a robot. All in all, 9 billion dollars and 6 years of development on Constellation was completely wasted.
Therein lies the danger with the relationship between NASA, the President, and Congress. Every time there is a new President, they need to decide whether to keep the extraordinarily expensive programs of their predecessors or choose their own. When President Trump was elected, he directed NASA to scrap ARM in favor of a somewhat similar rendition of the Constellation Program. One can argue that Trump fell into the same trap Obama had since the cancellation of ARM lead to years of wasted effort. However, the Trump administration is taking noticeable measures to preserve the development of ARM. The Space Launch System is still under construction and will be used to return to the moon, perhaps with a more useful objective.
That said, on January 24, The Verge reported that Trump is seeking to defund the International Space Station (ISS) by 2025. On paper, defunding the ISS sounds like a noble and worthwhile initiative—It is estimated that every year it remains in operation that it costs three to four billion dollars. NASA could use the money that it uses to fund the ISS to accelerate the development of its interplanetary vehicles. However, as President Obama and NASA learned after the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program, until a replacement is ready, cancelling existing programs can result in unforeseen consequences. It was understood in 2011 that when the space shuttles stopped flying, the commercial space industry would be prepared to send the astronauts to the ISS. Yet, seven years later, not a single astronaut has been sent to the ISS via private industry. As a result, NASA had to pay Russia to send American astronauts to space. If President Trump isn’t careful, a similar phenomenon may occur with the international low-earth orbiting station. It is easy to assume that private companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Bigelow Airspace will develop their own low-earth orbiting or even lunar orbiting stations. But until then, it is imperative that the ISS remains in operation. All in all, it is imperative that Trump doesn’t fall into the same trap his predecessors did so that he doesn’t squander years of development and billions of dollars.