President Trump’s Wannabe Space Race Saves NASA’s Funding—For Now

The president wants to massively cut most nonmilitary R&D—except for NASA. An interview with ‘How We’ll Live on Mars’ author Stephen Petranek reveals why.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

President Donald Trump likes tanks, killer drones, and aircraft carriers, for which he has allocated billions of dollars in his proposed federal budget. What he does not seem to like, however, is research in biomedicine, alternative energy, or the environment.

We know this from the $54 billion increase in defense spending the president wants in his 2018 budget, and the massive cuts to agencies researching, say, cures for cancer and building more efficient wind turbines. The president also hasn’t appointed a science advisor, and has left dozens of top research and development posts in his administration unfilled.

It’s a brawn over brains agenda that befits a blusterer who can’t be bothered with namby-pamby science stuff.

Except, apparently, where space exploration is concerned. Curiously, the one non-military science agency that President Trump has largely spared in his draft budget is the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. He has suggested cutting it by less than one percent, compared to, say, a 31 percent slashing of the EPA, and a 20 percent gouging of the National Institutes of Health.

Why Trump chose to spare NASA from the science-budget guillotine is not entirely clear, although Candidate Trump did occasionally tout human space travel as a potential priority for his administration. For instance, last fall he said: “Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.”

He repeated this admonition a few days ago when he signed the current funding bill for NASA. It called for a manned mission to Mars in the 2030’s and the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew capsule—an update on the old Saturn V rocket and Apollo capsule that ferried humans to the moon almost 50 years ago.

Trump also talked about the emerging privatization of space with companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK Corporation as something he supports, which led Recode co-founder Kara Swisher to tweet after the budget was released: “Somewhere @elonmusk must be smiling.”

Actually, Musk tweeted back, “I am not. This bill changes almost nothing about what NASA is doing.” A later tweet added: “Existing programs stay in place and there is no added funding for Mars.”

That is true. Trump’s proposed budget cuts NASA’s overall budget by $200 million and specifically calls for killing space-based NASA research focused on climate monitoring. This includes the elimination of environmental research projects such as the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem (PACE), Orbital Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), and Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

In other words, Trump’s NASA budget doesn’t care as much about our little blue planet as he does about sending people into space. Yet he does support big government efforts that many in the private space sector consider expensive, and that depend on technologies and ideas from NASA’s glorious past.

If these priorities—spending money on huge rockets instead of autism and Alzheimer’s disease—leave you scratching your head, let me share part of a recent conversation I had with the science writer Stephen Petranek. He’s the author of How We’ll live of Mars—a TED/Simon & Schuster book that was the basis for an amazing six-part series on the National Geographic Channel called Mars, executive-produced by the Hollywood team of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. The show has been renewed for next season.

Why was NASA spared Donald Trump’s R&D budget axe?

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It’s not really clear. When Trump was elected, people at NASA were dejected because they thought their budget would get killed along with other science programs. So this is a huge surprise. Maybe in his mind it would make America look great again.

So he did this for PR?

People want to be inspired, and healthcare and energy projects take a long time to produce results, and the money spent gets lost in the ether. George W. Bush got a tremendous popularity lift out of saying we should go to Mars, and it really played well in the media, even though he never really spent much money to make it happen. If you were to look back on the 20th century and ask: What is the greatest thing that happened in the 20th century, an awful lot of people would say it was humans going to the moon. So if you’re the guy who says in the 21st century, by gosh we should go to Mars, then it happens, that is going to stay with you and your reputation forever.

Is Elon Musk right, that the president’s budget is not helpful for manned missions, especially to get us to Mars?

NASA’s budget for going to Mars basically stays the same, at about $3.7 billion. That goes to work on the Orion Capsule, and the SLS rocket that gets it off the Earth. But you can’t land that Orion Capsule on anything, including Mars. It can only go out into space and come back, parachuting into the ocean. There’s no lander with it. There’s no habitat vehicle with it. So that additional hardware has to be developed, and that isn’t in the budget. Meanwhile, every time NASA launches it—even just to Earth orbit—it’s going to cost something like a billion dollars. NASA’s entire budget is $19 billion. That’s not much to launch these expensive rockets.

Can the private sector get us to Mars cheaper than NASA?

That’s the idea, although a few things have to work to make it possible. For instance, the recoverability of rockets is essential to the economics of going to Mars permanently. Musk is famous for saying that if you can’t learn to reuse rockets, then the cost of going to Mars and keeping people on Mars is equivalent to an entire year of GDP of the United States. But if you can learn to have reusable rocket parts, you can do it for a tiny fraction of U.S. GDP.

Is space a good investment for the private sector?

There are a lot of really smart business people who are making lists of companies that can be invested in in the space business, because space looks like the next big business opportunity. It’s not an accident that Jeff Bezos is developing a large rocket engine to get into space. Boeing recently applied to the FCC for permission to launch 3,000 satellites above the Earth. SpaceX just applied to the FCC to launch 7,500 satellites in addition to 4,400 it asked the FCC for last year. There are only 2,300 satellites above Earth right now and only about 1,100 are operational. This is just one little example of why space is going to be the biggest business there is for the next 20 to 30 years. If you put 10,000 satellites in orbit and they cover all parts of the Earth at all times, you can service communications in a way we’ve never dreamed about.

Why did NASA shift to a private-sector model after it retired the Space Shuttle?

The privatization of space that NASA has been sponsoring was a reaction to its budget cuts. NASA has to spend about $80 million per astronaut to Russia for seats on the Soyuz rocket that take them to the space station. You send 12 people up there, and you’ve spent almost a billion dollars. It’s a small fortune. The reason that NASA threw money at SpaceX and Boeing and Orbital ATK was to help them get cargo and soon people to the space station. That will cost them about $60 million per person, and is far less than building a new shuttle. The Space Shuttle flew 135 times. It cost more than $1 billion every time it flew.

Has NASA lost its edge in making rockets?

NASA’s very good at rocketry and moving people around in space, even though they’ve had some horrendous failures. The big trouble is, they only know how to do it expensively. What they’re especially good at is the science and the research. I thought it was a really smart move for them to try to get subcontractors to invest their own money to win contracts for supplying the space station with cargo.

I guess there is also more politics with NASA than with the private sector.

When NASA does something, there must be zero risk. They cannot afford failure because Congress cuts their budget when they fail, especially when it involves human beings in space. But SpaceX and Orbital ATK can take all kinds of risk. Orbital lost a cargo ship going to the space station, and so did SpaceX, and they have to absorb those losses.

Some have suggested that NASA’s capability might be better suited to return to the moon. Is that what’s happening here?

So one of the ways you can make America look great again at a relatively low cost is to send people back to the moon. It also has really unique timing because the Chinese have now announced that they are going to put a man on the moon by 2036, and the Russians are going to start building a moon colony by 2030. How are we going to feel if the Russians and the Chinese are on the moon and we’re not? That’s not going to make America look great.

Can Orion and other NASA systems get us to Mars?

The Space Launch System and the Orion capsule were never designed to go to Mars. They were designed to go back to the moon and they were designed to go lasso an asteroid, bring it back to the moon, then put it in orbit around the moon, so that people could practice mining it. Charles Bolden, the former administrator of NASA, pointed out to me two years ago that you could not find anything on any NASA website anywhere that said that NASA supported sending humans to Mars. Then all of a sudden SpaceX started making a lot of noise about going to Mars. The Martian came out, and all of a sudden NASA announces a director of a Mars manned mission. But the Orion Capsule and the SLS are better for moon projects. It’s nothing but a much larger Apollo system.

But you said Mars is the big inspiration.

The bill that has been proposed to fund NASA actually says nothing about going back to the moon, and it mentions Mars 28 times. For example some of the money is supposed to go to study the feasibility of a manned trip to Mars by the middle of 2030’s, but my suspicion is that once Trump’s people get into NASA and start looking at what they can do in a relatively short period of time they’ll head to the moon—he’s only going to be around for at most eight years, and NASA definitely can’t get to Mars within eight years unless Trump wants to put 50% of his entire federal budget into NASA.

Will this budget pass in Congress?

Let’s see what happens to this bill when it actually hits the floor of the Senate and the House. It could be decimated, or it could be expanded. To even look another year beyond that is kind of foolish at this point. I think the significant thing is that somebody is proposing to throw $19 billion at NASA at a time when we’re drastically cutting almost all other science.