Aug 11, 2020 - Science

The risk of branding NASA's wins

Illustration of The Moon with Make America Great Stickers “MAGA”

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Trump, like some of his predecessors, is branding NASA's recent wins as political, presidential accomplishments even though they are the result of efforts that span administrations.

Why it matters: Experts warn that partisan politicking with NASA can lead to whiplash that leaves the agency scrambling to chase new goals whenever a new administration arrives in Washington.

  • Moonshot whiplash is particularly troubling for NASA because the long-term nature of its work means its most high-profile programs stretch across multiple administrations.
  • As space becomes more important to national security and more geopolitical powers establish a presence in orbit, achieving big goals will be more important than ever.

State of play: Trump has worked to present himself as a strong supporter of NASA and the space industry at large, often framing his administration's space-related programs and policies in opposition to President Obama's space legacy.

  • Trump last week tweeted that NASA was "closed and dead" before he became president, but the agency wasn't shut down before he got into office.
  • He also claimed credit for SpaceX's successful crewed launch for the space agency, which began in earnest under a program funded by the Obama administration.
  • Trump is using space as a campaign issue, most notably in an ad that was pulled because it violated NASA policies that restrict the use of astronaut images in advertisements.

What to watch: How Joe Biden proceeds with NASA's Artemis Moon program — Trump's flagship space policy — if he is elected in November remains to be seen.

  • While a draft of the Democratic Party platform specifically calls out the importance of a human return to the Moon, Trump's politically motivated 2024 deadline for the crewed landing will almost certainly be changed if Biden is elected.
  • The 2024 goal for Artemis was, in part, born from a desire to lower the "political risk" of a big program that would usually stretch across multiple administrations, risking cancelation, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has said.
  • "I don't think the 2024 goal has a chance in hell of surviving. I mean, Congress doesn't want to pay for it now," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios.

The backstory: Trump is far from the first president to refuse credit to his predecessors for the space advancements they put in motion.

  • When Obama came into office, he cancelled the George W. Bush-era Constellation program back to the Moon in favor of sending astronauts to an asteroid instead.
  • While there were technical and other challenges with Constellation, many experts agree the cancellation was at least in part politically motivated.
  • And credit taking in space stretches further back. "At the time of Apollo 11, Richard Nixon never mentioned Kennedy," Logsdon said.

The bottom line: NASA's high-profile human spaceflight wins — like the International Space Station and Commercial Crew Program — have been the result of consistent policies carrying over from one administration to others.

  • If space accomplishments continue to be politicized, that consistency may soon be a thing of the past.
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