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Rep. Jim Bridenstine, seen here unveiling his American Space Renaissance Act in April, is an early front-runner to become the next NASA administration. (credit: Space Foundation)

Next steps for space policy

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Prior to, perhaps, late Tuesday night, the space policy of presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared to be of hypothetical interest to most, perhaps like those of prior presidential candidates like John Kerry and Mitt Romney. After all, the polls and the pundits all appeared to conclude that Trump had a small chance, at best, of winning.

“It’s a lot of bones and not a lot of flesh on it,” Walker said last month. “It will give you some idea of the direction that a Trump Administration would probably go.”

So much for conventional wisdom. Trump’s victory in the November 8 election means that his campaign’s space policy, which came together only in the final weeks of the race, has received newfound attention by the space community. Little has changed in the policy itself since the election—the campaign-turned-transition has understandably been focused on bigger issues—but how that rhetoric becomes action has generated interest, and concern, among many in the industry.

The Trump campaign never published a formal space policy white paper, instead relying on op-eds and talks, like one given by campaign space policy adviser Robert Walker in October at a meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in Washington. (See “Closing arguments for space in the 2016 campaign”, The Space Review, November 7, 2016.) Even Walker acknowledged that there were not a lot of details in that policy.

“It’s a lot of bones and not a lot of flesh on it,” he said at the COMSTAC meeting. “It will give you some idea of the direction that a Trump Administration would probably go.”

Walker said he was told by the campaign that it wanted “real change” in a space policy. “I would describe what we came up with in four terms: it’s visionary, it’s disruptive, it’s coordinating, and it’s resilient.”

From those four attributes, Walker said he developed a basic framework with nine key elements. One is a basic, overarching one: “announce a commitment to global space leadership that can produce the technology, security, and jobs for the United States’ success in the 21st century.”

He also called for reestablishing the National Space Council, an interagency coordinating body headed by the vice president. The council last was in operation during the administration of the President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, although candidates since then, including Barack Obama in 2008, have proposed restoring it. The council, Walker said, would “coordinate and produce efficiencies in US space activities.”

A third, and particularly bold, policy goal involved setting a goal for human exploration of the entire solar system, and not just Mars, by the end of the century. “That is seen to be something of a technology driver,” he said, pushing for innovative in-space propulsion and other enabling technologies. “There are a variety of ways of getting to Mars. I mean, you can drift there over a period of months. Or, you can develop the kinds of technologies that is aimed at exploring the solar system, which means that you would cut the transit time to Mars considerably with new technology.”

Combined that that goal was another plan to shift NASA funding to those exploration programs from “Earth-centric climate change spending.” That is, of course, not a new idea among many Republicans, including members of the House and Senate who have argued that NASA should focus on space and let other agencies handle Earth science work.

Other policy framework elements focused on specific technologies. One Walker mentioned was “smaller, agile, and more numerous satellites” that would provide greater resiliency for the military. Tied to that was a focus on satellite refueling and servicing. Another goal was “world leadership in hypersonic technology,” which Walker said had military applications.

Some other elements endorsed a greater role for commercialization. Walker said one goal would be to “turn over principal access and use of low Earth orbit to commercial entities, and give them greater latitude to develop unique new uses for space to generate economic growth.”

“We see low Earth orbit basically turned over to the commercial sector,” he added. “We’d like to see the commercial sector be innovative and creative about what goes on in low Earth orbit and have the government basically step back from its activities there.” An exception, he noted, would be military uses of LEO.

Linked to that goal was another, involving the future of the International Space Station. Walker said a Trump administration would “begin negotiations towards including more private and public partners in the use and financing and the long-term viability of the International Space Station as a major research facility.” He said the goal was to make the ISS a “quasi-public” facility that could last well beyond the current end date of 2024, but with greater roles for both companies and other international partners.

A final element of the framework returned to the issue of coordination within the federal government. Walker said that the administration would “demand that every federal government agency develop a plan for utilizing space assets and space developments in the fulfillment of their missions.”

“We’d like to see the commercial sector be innovative and creative about what goes on in low Earth orbit and have the government basically step back from its activities there,” Walker said.

How the incoming Trump Administration plans to implement that framework is, most likely, a work in progress: media reports indicate that the campaign spent little time on transition planning prior to the election, forcing them to ramp up their efforts very quickly. But some of the proposals have caused more concern than others, notably the desire to shift funding away from NASA’s Earth science programs.

While the election outcome did not come up during a previously-scheduled NASA briefing November 10 about the upcoming launch of its Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission, a constellation of eight smallsats that will collect ocean surface wind data to improve hurricane forecasting, it was also likely not a coincidence that an agency official mentioned the importance of Earth science at the briefing.

“NASA’s work on Earth science is making a difference in people’s lives all around the world every day,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, who became the associate administrator for science at the agency a little more than a month ago. “Earth science helps save lives. It also helps grow companies and creates an awareness of environmental challenges that affect our lives today and tomorrow.”

Any effort to shift Earth science work, such as missions like CYGNSS, from NASA to another federal agency poses technical and fiscal challenges. NASA’s expertise in Earth science missions doesn’t exist to the same degree in other agencies, like NOAA. For example, NOAA funds its own weather satellite work, but relies on partnerships with NASA to provide the expertise needed to manage those missions.

A transfer of those programs from NASA to NOAA or other agency would also likely mean that the money associated with those programs would go with them, undercutting a pledge to redirect money to Earth science.

Walker acknowledged as much when asked about that at the COMSTAC meeting. “In general, what I’d say is a lot of these missions that NASA is now doing are probably more appropriately done by NOAA,” he said. “There would have to be some budget adjustments in order for NOAA to assume those kinds of responsibilities.”

Handicapping the NASA administrator sweepstakes

One of the most popular parlor games in the space community during any presidential transition is who will take the most prominent space position in the next administration, that of NASA administrator. It didn’t take long for the rumor mill to go into high gear about who might succeed Charles Bolden, who said months before the election he would leave office at the end of the Obama Administration regardless of its outcome.

One name that quickly emerged was Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK). Elected to a third term in Congress representing his Tulsa-area district last week, Bridenstine has emerged as a leading voice on space policy issues in Congress, with seats on both the House Science Committee and the House Armed Services Committee.

Bridenstine is best known for introducing in April a comprehensive space policy bill known as the American Space Renaissance Act (see “An overview of the American Space Renaissance Act” parts 1, 2, and 3, April 25, May 2, and May 9, 2016). The bill includes a wide range of provisions involving national security, civil, and commercial space issues, from promoting the development of small launch vehicles for military applications to revamping how the NASA administrator is selected to shifting space traffic management responsibilities to the FAA.

“It is an open question whether a future President will take another bite at the human space exploration apple,” Albrecht wrote five years ago. “Frankly, it is hard to imagine.”

The act itself has not made progress in Congress, but Bridenstine has said since its introduction that the purpose of the bill was to instead be a host of provisions that could be adopted by other, “must-pass” pieces of legislation, like appropriations and defense authorization bills. “This bill will serve as a repository for the best space reform ideas,” he said when he discussed the bill in a speech at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in April. “Many of its policies can be inserted into other bills that will pass.”

Besides his space policy expertise, another factor that works to Bridenstine’s advantage is his support for Trump. While Bridenstine initially supported the campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries, he switched his allegiance to Trump after Cruz dropped out. That support did not waver during the campaign, even after the release in early October of a controversial video that caused a number of Republicans to withdraw their support, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI). “Given the stakes of this election, if Paul Ryan isn’t for Trump, then I’m not for Paul Ryan,” Bridenstine tweeted last month.

Leaving Congress might seem to end Bridenstine’s growing influence there as he rises in seniority. However, Bridenstine imposed on himself a limit of three terms in Congress when first running for election in 2012, a term limit he reiterated during his latest campaign. That means this will be his final two years in the House regardless of whether or not he’s offered and accepts a position in the administration. (Bridenstine’s name has also come up in discussions for the next Secretary of the Air Force, along with former NASA administration Mike Griffin.)

Bridenstine is not the only name to come up in discussions about the next NASA administrator. Another is Mark Albrecht, one of the key people, if not the leader, of Trump’s NASA transition team. Albrecht is no stranger to space policy, having been the executive secretary of the National Space Council when it last existed in the George H.W. Bush Administration, with Vice President Dan Quayle as its head. He later became president of International Launch Services (ILS), a US-Russian joint venture to commercially market the Atlas and Proton rockets (it has since become a Russian-owned marketing arm for just the Proton, as well as the new Angara rocket.)

Albrecht published a book in 2011, Falling Back to Earth, that included accounts of both his time on the National Space Council and running ILS (see “Review: Falling Back to Earth”, The Space Review, June 20, 2011). That included an insider’s account of the development of the Space Exploration Initiative in the early months of the Bush administration and its ultimate failure, which he blamed in large part on the “incredible misreading of the times, temperament, and trends” at NASA when it performed its infamous “90-Day Study” on the implementation of the initiative.

Albrecht, based on his comments in the book, might be a curious choice to lead NASA, given he appeared resigned to his belief that “the United States effectively abandoned its space exploration program after it won the Cold War” because of the failures of both the Space Exploration Initiative and the George W. Bush Administration’s Vision for Space Exploration. “It is an open question whether a future President will take another bite at the human space exploration apple,” he concluded in his book. “Frankly, it is hard to imagine.”

Another name being bandied about for NASA administrator is former astronaut Eileen Collins. Collins, the first woman to command a shuttle mission, has been a critic of the Obama Administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation program, saying at a House hearing earlier this year that it was both “unexpected” and left the agency with few options because that decision came in the final months of the shuttle program.

“Nations that lead on the frontier lead in the world. We need that visionary leadership again,” Collins said in July.

“I believe program cancellation decisions that are made by bureaucracies behind closed doors, without input by the people, are divisive, damaging, cowardly and many times more expensive in the long run,” she said at that hearing.

She gained attention this summer when she spoke at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in support of Trump. “Nations that lead on the frontier lead in the world. We need that visionary leadership again,” she said in a speech during the convention that lasted only a few minutes. “We need leadership that will make America’s space program first again, and we need leadership that will make America great again.”

Collins, though, curiously deviated from her prepared remarks distributed to media before her address. In her prepared remarks, she explicitly endorsed Donald Trump for president, but on stage never mentioned his name.

Albrecht, Bridenstine, and Collins might be the first names to be considered for the position of NASA administrator, but they’re unlikely to be the last. If history is any guide, other names will bubble up in the weeks and months to come, and still others fade away because of a lack of interest in the job or other considerations. And a decision may be months away: the Obama Administration, for example, did not settle on Bolden as its pick for NASA administrator until May 2009, four months after the inauguration and after several other people were reportedly considered and rejected.

Then again, given the unconventional nature of this campaign and this transition, history may be less of a guide than usual.