Trump, Musk, Bezos, Bruno & the Future of America’s Space Program

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

There’s been a lot of speculation since the election on  what president-elect Donald Trump will do with the nation’s civilian and military space programs.

Two Trump advisors laid out some goals before the election: more commercial partnerships, boosting defense spending, increasing hypersonics and slashing NASA Earth science. However, most details remain unclear.

A key question is whether Trump really cares about space all that much. That’s a little hard to discern given his comments during  the campaign.

When first questioned on the subject, he expressed a preference for fixing potholes in America’s crumbling streets over sending people to Mars. Trump has promised a large infrastructure repair program.

During a visit to Florida, he attacked the Obama Administration for allegedly wrecking NASA and the space program. During another appearance in the Sunshine State about a week later, Trump praised the space agency for how well it was performing.

So, NASA is either doing great, a disaster that needs to be made great again, or an obstacle to pothole repair. Assuming Trump actually cares, and he’s willing to spend some money on making NASA great again, what might he do? What major decisions does he face?

Mars Ho?

Red Dragon enters Mars atmosphere. (Credit: SpaceX)
Red Dragon enters Mars atmosphere. (Credit: SpaceX)

One important issue is whether the new president will keep NASA focused on the long-term goal of sending astronauts to Mars, or redirect the agency’s efforts on a return to the moon.

A decision either way could have a major impact on a pair of billionaire space moguls  — SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos — who have starkly contrasting visions about what the country should do next in space.

Another industry leader with a major stake in the outcome is Tory Bruno, who heads up a launch provider, United Launch Alliance (ULA), that Musk has tried to drive out of business.

NASA's Orion with the European Service Module (Credit: ESA–D. Ducros)
NASA’s Orion with the European Service Module (Credit: ESA–D. Ducros)

The Obama Administration has been pursing a plan to send humans to Mars by the mid-2030’s.  The program does not support any return to the surface of the moon. Instead,  the administration has been pursuing the testing out the technologies required to go to Mars by sending astronauts around the moon and to destinations in cis-lunar space.

A key part of the plan involves a robotic mission that would retrieve a boulder from an asteroid and bring it into cis-lunar space. Astronauts would be sent out to examine and sample the boulder.

NASA is developing two main elements to enable these missions, the heavy-lift Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft. NASA also has begun initial work on a deep-space habitat with study contracts awarded to multiple space companies.

SLS Block I launch vehicle (Credits: NASA/MSFC)
SLS Block I launch vehicle (Credits: NASA/MSFC)

Critics have complained that the administration’s Journey to Mars is more rhetoric than reality. There’s no real funding behind it. SLS and Orion are far too expensive build, maintain and operate, they say. The nation won’t be able to afford a sustained program of Mars exploration with this approach.

Congress has never warmed to the asteroid retrieval part of the plan. As a result, NASA has received very little money to pursue it. The asteroid mission is almost certain to go away when Trump is sworn in on Jan. 20.

Is a Return to the Moon in the Cards?

Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from Aldrin's panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. (Credit: NASA)
Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from Aldrin’s panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. (Credit: NASA)

When he ran for president four years ago, Newt Gringrich proposed a lunar colony that would eventually apply for statehood. He was roundly mocked for the idea, which became the basis of a Saturday Night Live sketch that had Gingrich becoming president of the colony after the world exploded.

As one of Trump’s transition advisors, Gingrich could have the last laugh. He could end up helping to settle the moon vs. Mars question in favor of a return to Earth’s closest celestial body.

Voyages to the moon might cost less in the short run than trying to get astronauts all the way to Mars. Another advantage is that Europe, Russia, China and other space powers seem more interested in exploring the moon. That opens the opportunity for international partnerships and cost and burden sharing.

ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Wörner has proposed an international lunar village to which different nations could contribute modules and equipment.He has been busy building support for the base among various space-faring nations.

In line with NASA’s plan to send astronauts to Mars, Boeing has proposed an orbiting station that would serve as a test bed for technologies needed for human trips to the Red Planet. It also could serve as a staging ground for human voyages down to the surface, so it could fit into the lunar village plan.

As for SLS and Orion, a switch of destinations to the moon creates few problems from a technical standpoint. Due to a lack of Congressional support, NASA has spent very little on systems that are applicable directly or solely to asteroids. The agency would have little trouble with the shift.

However, the high cost of SLS and Orion is very much on NASA’s mind. The space agency has issued a set of requests for information (RFI’s) on ideas for lowering the cost of producing, operating and maintaining these systems. NASA 0fficials realize these systems will be extremely expensive, and are looking for options that will allow them to reduce costs or supplement and even replace these vehicles.

The RFI’s could open the door to replacing the SLS with SpaceX’s heavy-lift Falcon Heavy and super-heavy Interplanetary Transport System. The Orion might be replaced by spacecraft being developed by SpaceX, Blue Origin or Boeing.

As a result, the Trump Administration could have a lot more options for deep-space exploration. However, the politics of making any moves that threaten these two programs are difficult.

Obama tried to cancel Orion and the Ares heavy-lift vehicle (which morphed into SLS) after he took office in 2009 only to face fierce Congressional resistance from states where the programs employed thousands of people. The forces supporting SLS and Orion are just as strong today.

All Aboard Musk’s Mars Express

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)
Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

In September, Elon Musk laid out an ambitious effort to colonize Mars, with the goal of sending the first crew there in 2024. The plan included the development of what would be the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, capable of carrying 100 people to the Red Planet at a time. Musk envisions a colony of a million people being established in the decades to come.

Reaction to the plan was decidedly mixed. Some saw it as bold and inspiring,the type of visionary plan not seen since John F. Kennedy appeared before Congress and pointed America toward the moon.

Others believe that Musk’s numbers (budgetary, schedule or engineering) simply don’t add up. In their view, Elon had not only jumped the shark but did a face plant right onto a coral reef.

The one thing everyone, including Musk, agrees on is that SpaceX doesn’t have the funding to pursue the program on its own. The company will need a public-private partnership to make the program work. Or, to put it another way, a ton of taxpayer’s cash.

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)
A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

That could be a problem given Trump’s other priorities. The president elect may not see the urgency that Musk does for setting up a martian colony to back up humanity.  Trump opponents who worry about the volatile billionaire having control over nuclear weapons might beg to differ. But, most of them probably see better options than than setting off for Mars.

Musk seems intent on moving the ball forward as much as he can in the hope of building momentum for the effort. SpaceX plans to launch a robotic Red Dragon vehicle to land on the surface of Mars in 2018. However, many experts believe the flight will likely be delayed two years. And Musk has admitted the spacecraft has only about 50 percent chance of successfully landing.

Trump, of course, can’t wait two years to see how Musk’s Mars expedition works out. He needs to make some major decisions now or, at the latest, at the end of the first year of his administration.

Then there’s the question of how Trump actually views Musk. The SpaceX CEO criticized the president elect during the campaign, saying he was not the right man for the job. Whether that will create a long-term problem for SpaceX with the new administration is unknown.

Will Trump be Better for Bezos & Bruno?

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

Bezos has no interest in sending people to Mars. The Amazon.com founder’s goal is to commercialize space, with millions of people living and working there. His space company, Blue Origin, is developing reusable rockets and spacecraft with this goal in mind. A shift of focus by the Trump Administration to the moon and cis-lunar space could be very beneficial.

Blue Origin seems far less dependent upon government contracts than Musk’s SpaceX. Bezos has a lot more money than Musk does at this point. He could probably pursue commercialization of Earth orbit and cis-lunar space, albeit at a lower level of activity, even if Trump decided to keep NASA’s efforts focused on Mars.

As with Musk, there is one potential hitch. During the campaign, Bezos jokingly suggested launching Trump into space after the candidate attacked Amazon.com for evading its fair share of taxes and for Bezos purchasing The Washington Post newspaper. After the election, Bezos tweeted his congratulations to the president elect.

Bezos’ space commercialization goals are shared by Blue Origin’s partner, ULA,. The two companies are jointly developing a new engine, the BE-4, that will power ULA’s new Vulcan booster and a pair of large launch vehicles being built by Blue Origin.

Under Bruno, ULA has developed a plan to develop cis-lunar space commercial and get 1,000 living and working there within 20 years. A key element is the ACES upper stage, which would serve as a reusable space tug that would move objects between Earth and lunar orbit and throughout nearby space.

The Road Ahead

A shift away from Mars toward the moon could be a pretty big blow to Musk’s long-range plans. The man is obsessed with establishing a colony on the Red Planet. And he has publicly acknowledged that he needs government money to make it possible.

Being the smart businessman he is, Musk would undoubtedly offer SpaceX’s rockets and technology to support lunar and cis-lunar activities. The profits could be used to support Mars expeditions. At the same time, a NASA focused on the moon would not be as strong of a partner for colonizing the Red Planet.

It will be interesting to see what emerges from the deliberations now going on in Washington and New York. One of the wildcards here is whether NASA will really have the money to pursue either option with any real vigor. Trump may not care enough to spend the funds and political capital on any of these efforts.

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