US space policy was anything but a prominent issue in the 2016 presidential election, lagging far behind domestic and foreign policy issues, not to mention normal campaign antics like name-calling. Still, NASA consumes about 0.5 percent of the federal budget and about 2 percent of federal discretionary spending. Therefore, while NASA may not be discussed much during the campaign, the agency could still see major changes under a new president who reassesses how the government spends its money.
Unfortunately, we don’t have many details about what the likely Democratic and Republican presidential candidates will do on space policy. There have been a few passing references on the campaign trail. For example, Hillary Clinton said she “really, really” supports the space program. And Donald Trump, in response to a question about NASA’s plan to go to Mars, said, “I love NASA” and “Space is great.” However, he added: “Right now we have bigger problems. You understand that? We need to repair our pits.”
The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics understandably sought deeper insight than this, so it sent a list of 10 questions to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich on the Republican side. Only Sanders and Trump have responded substantively to the questions, and since Sanders seems unlikely to be the Democratic nominee, we’ll focus on Trump’s comments.
His response can legitimately be described as thoughtful, but doesn’t bode well for NASA’s troubled Journey to Mars program, which the agency talks about at length but has no commitment from President Obama or Congress to implement. When Trump was asked specifically about this plan, he replied, “Much of what my administration would recommend depends on our economic condition. If we grow with all our people employed and our military readiness back to an acceptable level, then we can looking at the timeline to send more people into space.”
As Ars has reported, NASA’s Journey to Mars will stall on Earth unless the White House and Congress take steps to expand funding for its exploration programs. Trump seems incapable of maintaining a grand target for Mars without the funding available. “What we spend at NASA has to match what we ask of them,” he said.
These comments reflect sentiment reflected in the Blue Ribbon Augustine Commission, which reviewed NASA’s crewed spaceflight plans in 2009 and concluded that more than anything else, NASA should be given clear goals and funding consistent with those goals. Instead of giving NASA a sustainable plan, the White House and Congress told the agency to build an expensive large rocket and space capsule to undertake an unprecedented journey to Mars. Of course, NASA did not receive the money it needed for such a mission.
A Trump presidency could then try to better align NASA goals with funding levels, which likely means scaling back those Mars ambitions. “We also need to balance our spending priorities based on our economic conditions, and right now those conditions are quite challenging,” he said. “Our first priority is to restore a strong economic base in this country. Then we can talk about spending.”
That may not be entirely bad for NASA, as many outside experts have encouraged the space agency to abandon its improperly funded journey to Mars and recalibrate its exploration goals by relying more on private space companies demonstrating an ability to design, to build, and fly rockets and spacecraft at a fraction of the cost of NASA’s traditional contracting process. Trump sees a “massive overlap” between the interests of NASA and private space companies, saying, “I think there needs to be a growing partnership between the government and the private sector as we continue to explore space.”