President-elect Donald Trump’s advisers say they want to rely more on commercial ventures to pioneer the space frontier – but some of those ventures’ high-profile backers aren’t exactly in line with other parts of Trump’s policy agenda.
For example, SpaceX’s billionaire CEO, Elon Musk, sees climate change as the biggest challenge facing humanity on Earth and has said a tax on carbon emissions is as necessary as garbage collection fees.
In contrast, Trump has said concerns about climate change are a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and has vowed to “cancel” U.S. participation in the recently established Paris climate pact. (The Chinese say they’re trying to set Trump straight on that point.)
Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, who founded Blue Origin to send passengers and payloads into space, is also the owner of The Washington Post. The Post, Amazon and Bezos were all caught up in Trump’s ire during the campaign.
On the flip side of the issue, there’s at least one space billionaire who can hardly wait for Trump to get into office: Robert Bigelow, the founder of Bigelow Aerospace.
“Christmas arrived early this year!” Bigelow declared at the Space Commerce Conference in Houston on Thursday. “For the United States – and as I do believe will be eventually proven, for NASA – Christmas arrived on November the 8th.”
It’s not yet clear whether the Trump administration will be a boon or a bane for NASA or for particular commercial space ventures. Getting clarity might take a while. In an internal memo obtained by SpaceRef, NASA told its employees that the Trump transition team hasn’t yet sent representatives to the space agency.
Earth observation missions could be shifted out of NASA’s portfolio entirely and put under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s jurisdiction. Commercial efforts to mine asteroids could pick up more support.
There are lots of “maybe’s” and “could be’s” that may not get filled in until months after inauguration. After all, it took more than a year for President Barack Obama to flesh out his space policy. In the meantime, here’s a look at how six commercial space ventures are positioned for the transition:
SpaceX: We’ve already mentioned that Trump and Musk have different views on climate change. But SpaceX seems certain to continue delivering payloads (and eventually astronauts) to the International Space Station. SpaceX also plans to send a robotic Red Dragon capsule to Mars as early as 2018, and continue with missions roughly every two years after that. Watch for how SpaceX’s Mars program meshes with NASA’s.
Blue Origin: Bezos’ space venture plans to start launching rockets into orbit by the end of the decade, and it would love to work with NASA on space station transport and other missions. Will the frictions between Bezos and Trump get in the way of those plans? During the campaign, Trump talked about the potential for antitrust proceedings against Amazon. But after the election, Bezos made an effort to smooth things over by tweeting his congratulations to Trump and wishing him “great success.”
Vulcan Aerospace: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s space venture is working on a rocket launch system that would take advantage of the world’s biggest airplane, currently under construction in California. In June, Vulcan Aerospace’s president said that as much as half of the Stratolaunch system’s business could come from the U.S. military, NASA and other customers in the federal government. But first the project has to get off the ground … literally. On another policy front, Allen has directed a lot of his philanthropic resources toward climate change and nature conservation, but that’s not likely to be held against him.
Bigelow Aerospace: During this week’s talk, Bigelow called on the Trump administration to hike NASA’s budget to 1 percent of total federal spending, starting in fiscal 2019. That would be roughly twice as much money as the $19 billion that NASA currently receives annually. Bigelow said the federal government could afford it, based on the boost in economic growth he expected to see with Trump in the White House. Bigelow Aerospace is a leader in the development of expandable space modules, and Bigelow himself is a champion for commercial lunar missions.
The Boeing Co.: For decades, Boeing has been a leader in America’s space effort. It’s the prime contractor for the International Space Station and the core rocket for NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System. Boeing is also working on the CST-100 Starliner space taxi, which is due to start carrying astronauts to the space station in 2018. For other Boeing units, Trump’s ascendancy is a mixed bag. Military aerospace projects could get a boost, while commercial aviation sales could face obstacles. Just this week, the GOP-led House voted to disapprove Boeing’s aircraft deal with Iran. International sales could suffer further if Trump takes aim at the Export-Import Bank (a.k.a. the “Bank of Boeing”)
Lockheed Martin: Financial analysts expect Lockheed Martin and other aerospace companies to benefit from a Trump-led military buildup. Lockheed Martin also has a strong role in the civilian space program, ranging from robotic Mars probes to NASA’s multibillion-dollar Orion deep-space crew vehicle. The biggest uncertainty has to do with Orion: If SpaceX’s Red Dragon missions to Mars are successful, there’s a chance questions could be raised about the need for the more expensive Orion-SLS system. Stay tuned…