The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Clinton speech
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says she would continue NASA’s plans that call for eventual human missions to Mars. (credit:

Closing arguments for space in the 2016 campaign

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It’s almost over. Hopefully.

By late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning—barring races too close to call in states that hold the electoral vote balance—we should know who the president-elect will be. That will start the transition process leading up to his or her inauguration on January 20.

“A goal of my administration will be to expand this knowledge even further and advance our ability to make human exploration of Mars a reality,” said Clinton.

Throughout a campaign that has been extraordinarily divisive, space has been a non-issue. However, in the weeks leading up to Election Day, the campaigns of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump have finally disclosed some details about what they would do in space policy if elected.

In September, those two candidates, along with third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, responded to a questionnaire from ScienceDebate, which included a question about civil space policy: “What should America’s national goals be for space exploration and earth observation from space, and what steps would your administration take to achieve them?”

Clinton’s response, spanning several paragraphs, suggested she would continue the Obama Administration’s policies. “As president, my administration will build on this progress, promote innovation, and advance inspirational, achievable, and affordable space initiatives,” she wrote, after a paragraph describing the nation’s accomplishments in space science, the International Space Station, and space commercialization.

That would include keeping Mars as the long-term goal of human spaceflight. “Today, thanks to a series of successful American robotic explorers, we know more about the Red Planet than ever before,” she wrote. “A goal of my administration will be to expand this knowledge even further and advance our ability to make human exploration of Mars a reality.”

Trump’s response was shorter and more general. “A strong space program will encourage our children to seek STEM educational outcomes and will bring millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in investment to this country,” he said, referring to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. “Observation from space and exploring beyond our own space neighborhood should be priorities.”

The two campaigns later responded to a space-specific questionnaire from SpaceNews, with nine questions on a range of space issues. That included questions on military space policy, where again the campaigns showed differences on style and substance.

“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 said of space exploration goals.

“We must both advance our technological capabilities and ensure the operational readiness of our military space efforts, while keeping costs down,” Clinton wrote in a response to a question on military space priorities, one that ran for three paragraphs and included discussions about resiliency, small satellites, and launch. “As president, I will support reforms to make the procurement process more efficient, partnering with industry to advance innovation wherever possible.”

Trump’s response to the same question, by contrast, was only two sentences. “We should concentrate on making sure that we enhance combat lethality and increase situational awareness, and expand our intelligence capabilities. We must also guarantee our early warning capabilities remain strong, as well as our ability to communicate and navigate in war and peace.”

That was a theme throughout the questionnaire. Clinton’s campaign offered detailed responses, but those that suggested little significant changes from the status quo. “Mars is a consensus horizon goal, though to send humans safely, we still need to advance the technologies required to mitigate the effects of long-duration, deep-space flight,” she said when responding to a question about whether Mars would remain a long-term goal for human spaceflight.

The Trump campaign, though, was terse and vague, often suggesting it would defer to Congress on key issues. “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 said in a response to the same question about long-term priorities for human spaceflight.

Since the publication of that questionnaire—in which the Trump campaign responded to a final question soliciting additional comments with one word: “No”—the campaign has sought to try and provide more details. Two campaign advisors, Robert Walker and Peter Navarro, have published a pair of op-eds that sought to fill in some details about what a Trump Administration space policy would look like.

“NASA’s core missions must be exploration and science—and inspirational!” they write in one op-ed (exclamation point in original.) “These are the fundamental underpinnings of a Trump civilian space program.”

Trump speech
The campaign of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has provided some more details about its space policy concepts after some initial, brief responses to questions. (credit:

Those underpinnings include a focus on space science rather than “Earth-centric work” they argue should be done by other agencies, a position many other Republicans have argued when addressing NASA’s Earth science programs and funding.

They also called for a restoration of a National Space Council, which last operated in the George H.W. Bush Administration, to “end the lack of proper coordination” on space issues. That idea is not new—Barack Obama proposed restoring it when running for president in 2008—but has yet to be acted upon.

A second op-ed by Walker and Navarro addressed military space issues, which included a call to increase both civilian and military space budgets. They also cited growing threats to military assets, particularly by China and Russia.

“One of the things that we don’t need is a big blue-ribbon commission that tears everything up,” said deLeon.

“Against this emerging strategic chessboard, Donald Trump’s priorities for our military space program are clear: We must reduce our current vulnerabilities and assure that our military commands have the space tools they need for their missions,” they wrote. “We must also reduce the cost of space access and create new generations of satellites to deal with emerging threats.”

They included a number of technologies that a Trump Administration would focus on, from constellations of microsatellites to hypersonics. Like its earlier op-ed, it calls for greater use of commercial capabilities and partnerships. “Such an increased reliance on the private sector will be a cornerstone of Trump space policy,” they wrote.

Walker, a former congressman who chaired the House Science Committee in the 1990s, also discussed the Trump campaign’s views during a panel discussion October 26 at a meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC). He acknowledged at the meeting that he was relatively new to the campaign.

“The fact is that the campaign figured out at one point there that they actually did need a space policy,” he said, noting his role is senior advisor for space to the campaign. “About two weeks ago, I got a call from them saying they need a space policy.”

Walker discussed many of the same positions as he and Navarro had outlined in their op-eds, including a restoration of the National Space Council and work on smallsats and hypersonics. He also called for negotiations with more public and private partners to support the “long-term viability” of the ISS, and said that a Trump Administration would “demand” every government agency come up with a plan about how it would use space capabilities.

Also speaking at the COMSTAC meeting was Rudy deLeon, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. While not formally representing the Clinton campaign, he previously held key positions at the Pentagon under the presidency of Bill Clinton; the Center for American Progress, moreover, was founded by John Podesta, now chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

DeLeon, in his comments, called for a continuation of current space policies. “We need to sort of keep on track with what we’ve been doing,” he said. “One of the things that we don’t need is a big blue-ribbon commission that tears everything up.”

He did endorse a “modest increase” in NASA funding, particularly for human spaceflight, but supported the agency’s current approach to human space exploration outlined in its Journey to Mars plans. “The concept of the proving ground is, I think, a very solid one,” he said, a reference to planned activities in cislunar space NASA hopes to undertake in the 2020s to demonstrate technologies needed for human expeditions to Mars.

Interestingly, both deLeon and Walker were in agreement on many issues. Both, for example, endorsed continued operations of the ISS in some form well past the current date of 2024. “It’s going to involve trying to find some additional funding for the station. NASA cannot continue to bear that burden,” Walker said. “It will largely depend on the ability of us, beginning now, to develop new partnerships.”

“We’ve invested too much to just simply turn the keys off and have another one of those Skylab moments,” deLeon said of the ISS, also endorsing greater commercial use of the station.

Both were also willing to support greater cooperation with China in spaceflight, including a potential role on the ISS, despite concerns from the Trump campaign about China posing a threat to US military space assets.

“I’d invite China on board the space station, so you have cooperation in orbit rather than hostility,” Walker said. “The fact is, we’re probably in a position right now where we can learn from China as much as they would potentially learn from us.”

“I’d invite China on board the space station, so you have cooperation in orbit rather than hostility,” Walker said.

One topic that has gotten a lot of speculation is a potential larger role of the Moon in NASA’s space exploration plans. While the agency’s current plans call for human missions in cislunar space in the 2020s, it does not explicitly call for human missions to the surface of the Moon, although NASA administrator Charles Bolden has suggested in the past that the agency would support another country, like Europe, that did want to carry out human lunar surface missions.

“Any discussion of a trip back to the Moon begins with the fact that the country needs a budget deal,” deLeon said when asked about lunar missions, including US participation in a “Moon Village” concept espoused by ESA.

“Personally, I think going to the Moon as part of an extended presence in space is vital,” Walker said. “It’s a destination just a few days away where we’ll learn a lot about humans being able to live in an extremely hostile environment.” He added, though, that he couldn’t speak for the campaign specifically on that point.

At the same time deLeon and Walker were speaking at the COMSTAC meeting in Washington, a panel at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, was also looking ahead to issues beyond the election. And that, too, included a discussion about the Moon.

Scott Pace, head of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and an advisor to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on space, said the Moon could fill a gap in current space exploration policy. He noted that many countries and private companies are interested in the Moon, while fewer are interested, or capable, in missions to Mars.

“That gap, I think, needs to be filled in at the highest level by a surgical adjustment—not a radical change—of that policy to bring the Moon and international cooperation, partnerships with the private sector, more clearly into that path,” he said.

Ann Zulkosky, a former Democratic staffer in the Senate who now works for Lockheed Martin, also appeared to leave the door open for a greater role for the Moon. “The steps to get there [Mars] allow for some differences depending on your priorities,” she said, also citing international interest in the Moon. “There’s a lot of conversation that can be had about the interim steps that the next administration could put in place that could ultimately lead to that goal.”

But even with those broad outlines about what a President Clinton or a President Trump might do in space policy, there are few specifics and little details on how they would implement those plans, such as who would take over as NASA administrator from Bolden, who has indicated on multiple occasions that he plans to leave the agency regardless of the election’s outcome.

“There’s a lot of people talking about it. There’s a lot of speculation, there’s a lot of things up for debate,” Zulkosky said. “There’s very little actually known about how this is going to move forward.”