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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  • Doug, you’ve summarized what we are all asking right now: what comes next?

    While many will play the parlor game, even the main actors and stakeholders are only just now arguing and jockeying for position. None of us will really know what happens until some point in 2017 when first a proposal is announced, and then a budget gets passed.

  • Thanks for covering these things, Doug.

    The more personal commentary you can put in there, the better.

  • therealdmt

    Mars would be great, but the mid 2030’s for the vicinity of Mars (not a landing on Mars) is just too far away, it seems to me. NASA has said then a landing in the late 2030‘s, which you can read as 2040‘s given the delays that inevitably occur. And that’s if a whole series of Congresses and presidents continue to support the program at the levels NASA currently envisions, with political potholes and wider trouble like wars and major recessions avoided. For decades.

    And then, at a billion dollars a launch for SLS/Orion (not to mention an interplanetary spaceship and Mars lander, Mars habitat, etc.) and one mission to Mars requiring many launches, the program wouldn’t be sustainable.

    If it were me, I’d redirect the effort to a return to the moon, heavily incorporating public-private partnerships, with an eye towards developing a cislunar economy. Throw some bones towards Elon’s efforts, like buying an unmanned Red Dragon mission or three (incorporate the huge Red Dragon lander into NASA’s unmanned Mars exploration efforts) and buy SpaceX’s (among others) transportation services to get to and around the Moon, which would provide SpaceX with substantial funding for their (and our) Mars dreams. Include some ISRU stuff on the NASA Red Dragon missions and other things like that that could incidentally help forward Elon’s Mars plans. But redirect NASA’s main efforts to cislunar and seeding a space economy.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Colonizing Mars at large scale, a childish idea if we are reviewing real conditions at Mars, will not happen in our life-time, not even in following century. Therefore, we can propell to realize objectives as Bezos own.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    None of us? Not true. Snofru Chufu knows these things. He has a crystal ball. He even knows how long you will live! Check it out.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Come on, be realistic.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    Is that what you do? 🙂

  • Snofru Chufu

    We shall concentrate your resources to the best, step-wise approach of commercial space development. I think Bezos’ ideas are more reasonable as Musk’ dreams.

  • Robert G. Oler

    nothing is going to happen “grand” in human spaceflight unless the new administration and administrator tackle four things

    1. is the horrible procurement system at NASA…look at SLS and Orion and you see the same “road” being gone down that Station took …ie gong over budget, over time and under performing

    2. the dysfunctional management at NASA particularly in HSF

    3. no purpose for human spaceflight other then as a cash cow for the space industrial complex

    4. unrealistic goals. “go to Mars” we can barely keep 6 people in LOW earth orbit with a fulltime real time staff at NASA and other facilities around the world

    RGO

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, the foundation must be laid first. In this aspect President Kennedy had it easy. NASA was brand new and tiny when he gave it the mission to go to the Moon. Now NASA is massive, full of inertia and has a lot of legacy costs and process. It needs to be torn down and remodeled before it will be capable of really doing anything.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Doug, great job!

    But there may well be silver lining for Elon Musk even if the Trump Administration refocuses NASA and the would be more less regulation.

    At the recent New Worlds Institute conference in Austin Dr. Margaret Race of the SETI Institute spoke. She made three things very clear. Planetary Protection is not just a good idea, its the Law (OST Article IX). It applies to private space ventures to Mars as well as government one (OST Article XI) and that NASA is working with COSPAR to write the guidelines for Mars which will be based on protecting any possible Martian life from Earth based contamination, not for the benefit of private enterprise. Translation – Mars is off limits until we say its not off limits.

    I could well see a Clinton Administration using these guidelines to prevent Elon Musk from free lancing and going to Mars on his own. On the other hand I don’t see a Trump Administration caring that much about protecting bacteria on Mars that may not even exist. So although NASA may not fund him directly it also wouldn’t be in a position to throw regulatory road blocks in his way. And a SpaceX effort independent of NASA may be much more sustainable in the long run.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    Which is a noble aspiration and a fair observation. But we don’t know squat about the next century. Or the next 50 years. Or the next 20 years for that matter. Or whether the human lifespan will stay the same way for much longer. You may be shocked to know how much you will see in your lifetime. Keep it positive.

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    He doesn’t strike me as someone who has the slightest interest in space exploration.

  • Robert G. Oler

    and he had a model that worked and a goal that fit the model…

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Forget positive, keep it realistic. Optimism often suffers the cruel fate of encountering reality.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    1,2,3,4) Agreed with all your assertions. i have some suggestions though. I don’t know exactly how NASA works when it comes to contracting out work for building things like Orion and STS, but obviously the contractors who build these things for NASA receive taxpayer money through NASA. That must stop! Trump should close out those contracts within a year, and force NASA to transform the business practices of those contractors to force them to join in a cooperative with SpaceX or Blue Origin to work together on a common goal (like Newt Gingrich’s Moon) with a large loan from the government, banks,& or foreign financiers to fund their efforts instead of sole reliance on taxpayers, a majority of whom, as the election showed, are getting fed up at the way their tax dollars have been misspent so far on so many things.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    Impossible to be realistic when you’re thinking of millennia. If the last century is anything to go by, what we know as reality will change frequently over the next hundred years, and one can limit one’s self by overly prejudging what comes next. With optimism, we draw enlightenment from encounters with reality, as opposed to grim vindication in the case of the realist. I guess it comes down to how you wish to guard your mind in the face of the…unfolding…unknown. :

  • Carlton Stephenson

    I can not see a SpaceX Mars *anything* without NASA, especially if it shakes out that SpaceX can take astronauts there before NASA. SpaceX is going to need NASA, and NASA would be mad not to capitalize fully on Musk’s colonization sorties, just like they are doing with Red Dragon. The opportunity to conduct science on the sidelines alone would make it an imperative, never mind collecting big on Musk’s Supersonic Retro Propulsion and in situ fuel generation intel. Whether NASA spends or not, we can expect them to be there in some form of the other every step of the way. And I don’t think SpaceX would want it any other way.

    The other part of that is: with NASA present, the laws as it relates to that planet will be followed.

    That’s my bet.

  • redneck

    When your operations depend on force, they fall apart as soon as the force ceases application.

  • James

    You keep thinking that government procurment is a problem and not a feature. The idea is to use the NASA budget to funnel money to congressional districts to keep jobs. Space is secondary.

  • Charles Lurio

    Laura Ingraham is under consideration for Trump’s press secretary.

    Only trouble is, for some time she’s been using some cooked numbers to claim that Tesla _and_ SpaceX are stealing billions from the taxpayer. “Bigger scandal than Enron” is the claim.

    So though Trump _should_ be receptive to SpaceX, given how low space is on his totem pole, SpaceX might end up being treated rather badly. The person who can get to the ear of someone naive on a subject can suggest a narrative. Even if it’s not enacted to the extreme she peddles, it could be bad enough.

  • ThomasLMatula

    So you feel he has been assimilated as a NASA contractor and is dependent on NASA.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    Dont know about assimilated but dependent, for Mars, definitely. NASA is the only one to have ever really landed anything successfully on Mars ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_missions_to_Mars ). This is not a barge on the ocean where Musk can crash the first four before getting it right. Mars is too far and too expensive and too ‘windowy’ for that. It is in his best interest to have NASA on board and it is in NASA’s best interest to get on board anything Musk sends to Mars; the perfect symbiotic relationship.

    With the use of NASA’s technical expertise and resources both here and in place at Mars, I give Musk’s Mars missions an 80% chance of success. Without it, I give it a 10% chance, no more.

  • Kapitalist

    The problem is that SpaceX doesn’t have equipment that’s suitable for the Moon. They would need several Falcon Heavy docking in orbit and develop an ascent vehicle from scratch. I don’t think that FH gives them a significant advantage over smaller launchers with respect to the Moon. If NASA really goes for the Moon, competitors have a great opportunity to overtake SpaceX by using Moon-specific gear.

  • Kapitalist

    When considering Trump’s nominations, I think one should remember his fire and hire policy. The Apprentice was not just a show concept made up out of nothing. It is a real policy. You hire people with potential and then fire those who don’t work out so well. He changed his campaign manager twice. Don’t count on his nominees to last very long. He will change them when either they don’t deliver or when the situation changes, as when going from primaries to the election. Especially in politics it is common for strong leaders to rotate their lieutenants to weaken rivalry. Trump is a peoples person, that stuff is what he is really good at.

  • windbourne


    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.

    great job doug (like always), but you missed on this one.
    Musk has said that he will likely need federal money to help, but, it can come in many forms. In particular, musk needs to launch FH and FBR many times to be able to afford Mars.
    FH needs to start launching once every 6 months or more and then speed up a bit.
    FH is ideal for initial start to the moon, ARM and mars.
    BUT, once we have ARM and Mars going, BFR will suddenly make more sense.
    And if the BFR can be launched 1x / month for lunar goods, well, that is all that Musk REALLY needs.

    I will say that if the same GOP that controlled the CONgress for the last term are in place, then Musk may be in REAL trouble. The GOP worked hard to hurt him as much as they could. Even now, with their BS sites and attacks on all 3 companies, it is frustrating.
    But trump remains an unknown. I really hope that he will control the GOP and focus them on business and not the political BS that they have done for the last 8 years.

  • windbourne

    Really?
    How will the moon-specific gear get there and at what costs?
    Also, if musk is able to bring down a full stage from space and land it on earth without using parachutes to slow themselves down, I think that he will have no real issues with the moon.

    In fact, I would not be surprised if SpaceX is the first one back on the moon.

  • Kapitalist

    A competitor or the Chinese developing a one-shot-to-the-Moon launcher, before the ITS, would have a good chance to beat them. Falcon Heavy cannot launch an F9 first stage to the Moon, or even to LEO. They’ve left the Moon a blind spot. And SpaceX doesn’t show any interest in the Moon.

  • windbourne

    The chinese are a good 5-10 years away from having a 1 shot to the moon launcher. As it is, they need to jump up their capacity 5x to have that.

    The Russians will not do it. They do not have the capability or the money.

    And with SpaceX developing a capsule that will land on earth without parachutes within a year, I suspect that they will have the capabilities to build something rather quickly for the moon.

    One that I would LOVE to see is ULA develop ACES to simply attach say 5-6 of them to a cargo platform and then land on the moon with say 50-100 tonnes. That COULD give SpaceX a run for their money.

    And while you can argue that SpaceX has not shown any interest in the moon, the fact is, that SpaceX will send equipment to where-ever they can make a decent profit, OR will help support their goals of Mars.

    Finally, I think that Trump will continue with the COTS approach to do things. It is working out quite well for America. One of those will be how to land on the moon.

  • windbourne

    Musk is lowering the price of space access to less than 1/2 of what it was, and may bring it down to 1/3.
    He is a short distance from having not only human launch, but the largest launch vehicle (and the only one that is cheap enough to launch ).
    In addition, he appears to be making profits with SpaceX.

    Now, I am a fan of Bezo, BUT, he has nothing going yet, has no money coming in; and is 1-2 years before sending up ppl/cargo up to sub-orbital.

    And you think that bezo is further along than musk and that musk needs to explain what he wants to YOU?

    Seriously?

  • windbourne

    really?
    What objectives does Bezo have that SpaceX will not be doing long before Bezo?

  • windbourne

    in fact, NASA’ technical expertise is the difference between F1-1, and F1-4.

  • windbourne

    under consider and will be are 2 very different things.
    And hopefully, trump will not listen to an idiot like that.
    It remains to be seen who will be what.

  • Kapitalist

    Actually, Elon Musk apparently uses SpaceX for his Mars vision, not in order to maximize profits. Maybe he will pretend to turn around to the Moon for a while now that the regime has changed (and to space nuclear power as a part of the Energy Growth Win Win Win policy?) But I think that a military industrial complex competitor now sees their chance to remain relevant in future space. Even with the expensive unmodern SLS-thing. More money might help it. To go to the Moon, not to save human kind from climate panic, but as part of a national security strategy that the new president appreciates. (At least Elon Musk can comfort himself with Jeff Bezos being a loser now anyway).

  • windbourne

    I did not say that he is trying to maximize profits. I said that he will do things to make a decent profit. That is to be plowed back into Mars.

    And pretend to focus on moon? Nope. He will be happy to got to the moon, but no on his dime. After all, that will not get him to Mars. It has to be on others.

    As to the ‘military industrial complex competitor’, that would be ULA? I think that they are so far, doing just fine. They simply need to get their costs way down, which will take more than just moving off Russian launch gear.
    And SLS, is Boeing’s/L-Mart’s work.

    As to national security via the moon, I agree with you on that (china will be on the moon MUCH SOONER than most expect). However, that CAN NOT happen with NASA. NASA is a CIVILIAN operation and will NOT be involved in that.

  • Kapitalist

    NASA might now be changed onto something which is of more military relevance. And honestly, the space race and the space shuttle were mostly motivated for military reasons. The ISS is mostly a program of foreign policy, shutting out the Chinese for example. Civilian exploration of space has always been just a small part of NASA’s motivation. Like the tiny planetary explorations program. That NASA is civilian is mostly empty propaganda meant to fool only the naivest believers. And now I think that NASA will also officially become a military agency, like it is in the more honest competitor nations. The hypocrisy will end and a rational nationally useful strategy can be formulated.

  • windbourne

    wow.
    You and Snofru have a real hatred for America.
    Worst, you obviously speak of things that you know nothing about.
    NASA and the DOD collide all the time.
    NASA is, and will remain, a civilian product.

    And to my knowledge, only China currently has their ‘civilian’ space program as part of their military. Even Russia has kept them separate since the 70s.