Trump likely will have to make big decisions about NASA’s plans for Mars.
The incoming president likely will have to make decisions regarding a few key NASA programs, according to space policy experts who spoke with Space.com prior to the Nov. 8 election. [Top Space Issues Facing President-Elect Donald Trump]
Currently, NASA is planning to send humans to Mars as early as the 2030s using a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) that the agency is building in-house. NASA also will use the Orion spacecraft to carry humans atop the SLS. The Orion spacecraft has undergone one test flight; the SLS has yet to complete a test launch. The SLS will have the boost necessary to propel humans to the moon, Mars or other deep-space destinations, and there is currently no other operating rocket with that kind of power.
“The next president is inheriting a space program that has this nascent ambition to go to Mars but doesn’t have hardware actually flying yet,” Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society, told Space.com in November. “So there’s a lot of opportunity for the next administration to say, ‘Should we continue these [programs]? What will the direction be? Do we want to commit to supporting these programs as is? Do we change them? Do we cancel them?’ … So it’s a big question mark.”
In his 2011 budget request, President Barack Obama effectively canceled NASA’s Constellation Program, which would have returned humans to the moon, although pieces of the Constellation Program were folded into the SLS and Orion programs. There is debate among human-spaceflight experts about whether building a more permanent human presence on the moon is a necessary stepon the way to sending humans to Mars.
As president, Trump may not cancel NASA’s Mars mission entirely, but it’s possible that the next administration will tell the agency to cancel the SLS program and instead utilize the heavy-lift rocket being developed by the private spaceflight company SpaceX, Brian Berger, managing editor of SpaceNews, said during a webinar shortly after Trump’s election. The Falcon Heavy rocket will also have the ability to send a spacecraft all the way to Mars. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has laid out his long-term goals for colonizing Mars; in the near term, the company plans to send its own uncrewed spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018. Supporters of the SLS program have argued that two transportation systems to the Red Planet would be safer for astronauts (so if either rocket system failed during a supply delivery, for example, there would be a backup).
Beyond NASA’s Mars program, Trump could have to make decisions regarding NASA’s commitment to the International Space Station. The agency is committed to its current level of funding for the station through 2024. Agency representatives have said they hope private industry will take up a bigger role in low-Earth-orbit activities. Right now, the station serves as a national laboratory, where scientists and private companies can conduct research in microgravity. Members of private industry have spoken about the possibility of shifting microgravity research into private space stations.