The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Trump inauguration
Can President Trump harness the key factors needed for strong presidential leadership in space? (credit: White House)

Presidential space leadership depends on the enabling context (part 2)

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Leadership in today’s context

The case studies from part 1 present us two lessons: presidential leadership is a necessary but not sufficient condition for large space programs; and presidential leadership functions best when it contains JFK-like elements which are closely tailored to the domestic and international context of that era. If we want to answer the question of whether JFK-like leadership is possible or desirable today, we need to examine the current context such leadership would arise within.

Polling consistently shows that the public supports space programs in the abstract, but when asked to weigh multiple spending priorities, support for space programs falls below other national programs.

Today’s international environment can be described as both more complex than that faced by Kennedy, Nixon, or George H.W. Bush, but also an environment with less urgency to action. The superpower competition and bipolar nature of the space race during the 1960s has gradually evolved to an environment characterized by friendly competition and cooperation among a much larger set of spacefaring nations. There is no grand ideological conflict among superpowers that could translate into new support for ambitious space endeavors. With the exception of China, the dominant international paradigm is one of cooperation on projects like ISS and exploration initiatives. Also, due to the rise of new spacefaring nations like India and China, the United States has more options for collaboration, but also faces new constraints, like Congressional restrictions on NASA partnering with China.

President Trump enters office within this environment of increasing cooperation on civil space projects and expanding competition in the commercial space industry. The United States endured significant criticism for its divergence from international community’s focus on the Moon by turning its attention to an asteroid capture mission. While Trump campaigned on a platform of strong opposition to multilateralism, it remains to be seen how this will translate to space. His administration may be attracted to the potential—and possibly illusory—economic benefits of asteroid mining, or may favor the potential cost-sharing of collaborating with other nations on Moon missions. This choice may depend on whether emerging populism accelerates the move away from multilateralism, or whether globalization proves to be an unstoppable force that pulls the United States into greater cooperation.

US public sentiment on human spaceflight can be described as aspirationally supportive but practically apathetic. Polling consistently shows that the public supports space programs in the abstract, but when asked to weigh multiple spending priorities, support for space programs falls below other national programs. Absent the emergence of some new variable that pushes spaceflight back into the realm of a pressing national security concern, it is hard to imagine the American public supporting significant increases in public spending for space.

While Trump campaigned on a message of economic populism and promised stimulative spending, directing these resources towards NASA would likely be seen as pork for the aerospace industry and highly-skilled labor, as opposed to infrastructure spending that would have more direct benefits for working-class Americans. It would likely take a Chinese Moon landing, the detection of an Earth-threatening asteroid, the discovery of life on other planets, or a similar frame-resetting event to spur the public’s appetite for bold new spending.

The US fiscal environment is not supportive of additional spending for space programs. Debt-to-GDP ratios have grown from about 40 percent during the Kennedy administration to 60 percent under Bush, to 105 percent in 2016. Non-discretionary spending will consume all federal revenues sometime in the next 20 years. NASA’s budget as a percentage of both the federal budget1 and GDP has been declining since 1992.2 There is no evidence of a possibility for a reversal in this trend. Space historian Roger Launius noted that “for years space boosters had searched for the key that would unlock the public treasury and provide them with the largesse necessary to pursue an aggressive program of space exploration.”3 Absent a transformational change in other contextual factors, it seems unlikely that any level of presidential leadership will be key to unlocking additional public funding for space.

NASA is perhaps better positioned than it has been in decades for an ambitious new space program. The agency is consistently rated as the top place to work in the federal government, and the failures of Challenger, Hubble, and Columbia are far behind. The struggling Constellation program has been replaced by the Space Launch System, which is on track for its first launch in 2018. The International Space Station is regarded as a success and has received an extension through at least 2024. The agency has broadened its missions to reintroduce x-plane development, it is building a platform of capabilities for human space exploration, and it is poised to launch a number of significant missions this year and next, including the potentially transformational James Webb Space Telescope.

Of course, all is not perfect at NASA. The agency currently has no ability to launch humans into space and must rely on Russia for transportation to the ISS. Its “capabilities-focused” approach has faced criticism for a lack of measurable target mission dates that could focus science and engineering efforts. NASA faces criticism from those who argue that the residual Apollo-era spaceflight culture is detrimental, and from those who, perhaps rightly, point out that private sector companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have out-innovated NASA. In fact, the role of NASA in the context of rapidly expanding commercial capabilities is both a risk to a potential presidential initiative as well as an opportunity to re-define the role of a civil space agency in an increasingly robust commercial environment. And some space advocates, including within NASA, would not be partial to bold new space initiatives that could divert funding from planned missions or basic science research. This internal institutional dynamic, which involves the broader scientific community, must be considered by any president planning bold new initiatives.

While there may be room for strong presidential leadership in support of the US commercial space sector, or in redefining the role of NASA in relationship to commercial space, that leadership must be based on a clear appreciation of opportunities and risks.

Congress will be an unknown variable for President Trump. While he enjoys a unified Republican government, it would be a stretch to claim he enjoys a uniformity of values and goals with the Republican-controlled Congress. Congress has always had different priorities and perspectives from the White House and NASA. Under Kennedy, Congressional priorities aligned on Apollo thanks to the larger national security environment and the large amount of spending Apollo would direct towards Congressional districts. The recent Republican Congress has not shown an appetite for spending increases outside of defense, and the Tea Party would likely object to new, costly programs. Laissez faire elements within Congress could advocate for reducing or eliminating programs where NASA might be seen as competing with the private sector and might argue for accelerated technology transfer to industry. Attempts to gain Congressional support by casting the space program as a national security issue would be a risky bet, considering the lack of any compelling existential threat.

The commercial space industry is a new variable that could factor for and against bold presidential leadership. The (relatively) rapid emergence of new non-state players in the space industry should warn any president considering new, large space initiatives. The private sector is far more dynamic than government and any long-term plans would need to be flexible enough to account for positive and negative disruptions inherent to business. For example, private-sector heavy-lift vehicles could make civil heavy-lift vehicles redundant or prohibitively expensive by comparison. One might be tempted to cancel elements of SLS if private companies can provide lower-cost solutions. But private firms can also go bankrupt and are driven by different incentives than civil space programs. While there may be room for strong presidential leadership in support of the US commercial space sector, or in redefining the role of NASA in relationship to commercial space, that leadership must be based on a clear appreciation of opportunities and risks, including the risk of private companies leapfrogging long-term government initiatives in both affordability and speed to execution.

Is strong presidential leadership possible or desirable?

Strong presidential leadership is possible, but will forever be subject to the constraints of the enabling context. President Trump could provide JFK-style leadership so long as it is tailored to that context. An examination of the elements of JFK’s leadership in the modern context is illustrative.

Pragmatic leadership would likely call for very modest or no additional spending due to fiscal constraints, possible resistance from Congress, the lack of an overriding national security interest in space exploration, and flatlined public support for space. The international and commercial context also calls for more international cost-sharing and public-private space partnerships. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated flexible, pragmatic tendencies and an emphasis on this type of space leadership might best suit his personal style.

The new President has some options for opportunistic leadership. A unified government allows him some freedom of maneuver, and the rising commercial space industry provides an opportunity to transform the relationship between NASA and the private sector. A possible warming of relations with Russia may present openings for additional cooperation, and a realignment of national objectives away from asteroid capture and towards the Moon will ensure broader international support and cost-sharing. However, Trump’s anti-China stance would seem to foreclose any possibility of new cooperation with the Chinese. Ironically, an isolated Chinese space program could spur public anxiety about Chinese accomplishments and might ignite a space race, which generates new opportunities for bold programs.

We are left then with a final question: is JFK-like leadership even desirable? The answer to that question is simple but depends entirely on how one defines JFK-like leadership.

Trump’s executive leadership will be critical. Like Kennedy, he has not demonstrated any particular interest in space exploration beyond the national outcomes space programs can fulfill. (This author does not place much credence in the calls by Trump advisors’ for “ambitious new space programs”4 absent statements from the President himself.) Unlike Kennedy, there is no overriding national security concern that would demand Trump’s attention to space matters. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that the success of his space policies will rely heavily on the people he chooses to execute them, and not on his direct and consistent advocacy. Trump’s choice for NASA administrator and the level of authority and mandate he provides Vice President Pence as the chairman of a reconstituted National Space Council will be critical.

Trump may struggle to communicate a vision for new space initiatives. Policy specificity was not a strong point during his campaign and it remains to be seen whether this will change once he takes office. He is an effective, if highly unorthodox, persuader. The proposals from his advisors have been modest: reviving the NSC, shifting NASA’s focus to deep space exploration, and rationalizing launch vehicle development between the government and private sector. This is not a bold “Kennedy-like” vision for the future, but this does not preclude the development of one.


We are left then with a final question: is JFK-like leadership even desirable? The answer to that question is simple but depends entirely on how one defines JFK-like leadership. If it means taking the Kennedy and Nixon approach—articulating a pragmatic vision which is opportunistic yet achievable within the larger context, and then effectively executing that vision with Congress, NASA, and the American public—then only the most staunch anti-space opponents would find it undesirable. If JFK-like leadership takes the Bush approach—articulating an over-reaching and not well-coordinated, grandiose vision that is disconnected from the contextual environment and haphazardly execute—then even the most ardent space booster would argue it unwise.


  1. “Budget of NASA” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., date last updated September 9, 2016. Accessed September 17, 2016.
  2. Kring, David. The Center For Lunar Science and Exploration. Accessed September 26, 2016.
  3. “Introduction” in Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy, Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership (1997), 3.
  4. Robert S. Walker and Peter Navarro, “Trump’s space policy reaches for Mars and the stars” SpaceNews, October 19, 2016.