President Donald Trump referred to technology and science in only the most general terms tonight in his speech to a joint session of Congress, evoking a vision of curing illnesses and leaving footprints on distant worlds.
In advance of the speech, some reports hinted that there’d be a call to step up the pace of human space exploration, but that got lost amid the issues that are more central to Trump’s agenda – such as immigration and crime, terrorism and security, health care and jobs.
Much of what Trump had to say about technological innovation had to do with America’s past, not its future. The issue was addressed most directly in this passage toward the end of the speech:
“On our 100th anniversary, in 1876, citizens from across our Nation came to Philadelphia to celebrate America’s centennial. At that celebration, the country’s builders and artists and inventors showed off their wonderful creations.
“Alexander Graham Bell displayed his telephone for the first time. Remington unveiled the first typewriter. An early attempt was made at electric light. Thomas Edison showed an automatic telegraph and an electric pen.
“Imagine the wonders our country could know in America’s 250th year. Think of the marvels we can achieve if we simply set free the dreams of our people.
“Cures to the illnesses that have always plagued us are not too much to hope.
“American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.
“Millions lifted from welfare to work is not too much to expect.
“And streets where mothers are safe from fear — schools where children learn in peace — and jobs where Americans prosper and grow — are not too much to ask.
“When we have all of this, we will have made America greater than ever before. For all Americans.
“This is our vision. This is our mission.”
When Trump referred to setting foot on distant worlds by 2026 – the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence – he might have been thinking about plans to send Americans back to the moon, or about SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s plan to send settlers to Mars. No other distant worlds are on any realistic agenda for human exploration in that time frame.
What’s more, NASA may well be in for budget reductions that would limit the space agency’s ambitions even further. This was the subject of reactions on Twitter:
"American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.” — @realDonaldTrump
Context: US 250th in 9 years, "worlds"—plural? Budget?
— RobertPearlman (@RobertPearlman) March 1, 2017
Is the Moon a "distant world"? Just wondering. https://t.co/PmzfoIoOlv
— Marcia Smith (@SpcPlcyOnline) March 1, 2017
— philliplarson (@philliplarson) March 1, 2017
What's sad is that almost everyone in the space community agrees that "footprints" are not the goal. We need to go, stay, live, explore.
— Eric Berger (@SciGuySpace) March 1, 2017
In her analysis of the speech, longtime policy analyst Marcia Smith notes that the true indicator of Trump’s space policy (and broader policy on science and technology) will come in his budget request for the next fiscal year.
Smith said Trump’s reference to distant worlds “does not resolve any of the issues about the future of the human spaceflight program, but at least signals that the president supports the overall concept.”
Even if the president gets more explicit in his budget proposal, there’s no guarantee Congress would go along. As is usually the case, Trump’s budget plans already have been declared “dead on arrival.” What’s unusual this time around is that the DOA declaration was made by a leading member of the president’s party, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
The engineering frontier getting the most attention in tonight’s speech didn’t have to do with software, but with the nuts and bolts of infrastructure. “I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital – creating millions of new jobs,” Trump said.
At another point in the speech, the president promised that “crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land.”
Earlier in the day, the White House provided a couple of significant bright spots for science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM. Trump signed the INSPIRE Women Act and the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act into law. (INSPIRE is an acronym that stands for “Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers and Explorers.”)
The INSPIRE Women Act authorizes NASA to step up its efforts to encourage women and girls to get into STEM fields, while the other law authorizes the National Science Foundation to use entrepreneurial programs to widen the focus of women in STEM from their laboratories to commercial applications.
Both bills had bipartisan support in Congress, which is becoming something of a rarity nowadays. But will the budgets for NASA and NSF back up the legislation’s STEM-friendly sentiments? Stay tuned.