Dec 15, 2020 - Science

Trump will leave a lasting mark on space

Illustration of a "Trump 2020 Keep American Great" flag on the Moon.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump put the American space program front-and-center during his tenure, defining priorities in orbit and beyond that will outlast his four years as president.

The big picture: The Trump administration helped open up new commercial opportunities in orbit, building on years of work by the space industry. But some question whether those gains are sustainable in the long term.

What's happening: "I think the space program is in better shape now than it was when he took office," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told me.

  • Trump consistently prioritized NASA funding in his budget proposals and relaunched the National Space Council, which aims to hold agencies accountable for their work with space.
  • The Trump administration also extended the reach of commercial partnerships in space. Instead of NASA building a human-rated lunar lander, for example, the agency is outsourcing that work to private companies in a trend that is likely to continue far into the future.
  • "[Space] may be one of the least controversial areas of his legacy," Michael Gleason of the Aerospace Corporation told me.
  • And perhaps his biggest move was standing up the U.S. Space Force.
"While some of the Trump administration’s space policy decisions and initiatives have generated criticism, that is more due to the political rhetoric accompanying them than the substance."
— The Secure World Foundation, in a briefing document

Yes, but: Trump also consistently framed NASA's accomplishments as ways to "make America great again," Logsdon said.

  • That "America first" attitude has put off some space allies, including Russia, which has yet to sign on to the Artemis Accords, the administration's international agreements that will govern exploration of the Moon.
  • Instead of allowing NASA to stay above the fray politically, Trump consistently politicized NASA's wins like SpaceX's first crewed launch, claiming credit for the Obama and Bush-era policies and falsely stating NASA was "closed" under Obama.

Between the lines: Many of Trump's biggest space wins are also the result of years of work from the space industry.

  • Commercializing space with private rockets and spacecraft has taken time and funding from a number of administrations.
  • The Space Force was an idea long before Trump took office.
  • "His administration moved the ball forward for the U.S. space enterprise by making these decisions, but credit also goes to those in the space enterprise who went before and did years of ground work to make those decisions possible," Gleason said.

What to watch: Some experts are also concerned that some of the progress made in commercializing space may not be sustainable.

  • Having companies launch payloads to orbit and dock at the International Space Station is one thing, but landing people on the Moon is an entirely new level of difficulty for any private company.
  • And some lawmakers have expressed concerns about whether a human lander built by private companies would be as safe as one built by NASA.
  • The market for those kinds of services may also be limited to government customers at least for the foreseeable future, as the private market for those kinds of missions isn't yet clear.

What's next: President-elect Biden will need to decide what his administration will build on when it comes to Trump's space policies.

  • Some experts in the industry have suggested the new administration should continue with the Artemis Moon missions, commercial opportunities and Space Force while changing the rhetoric around space accomplishments.
  • "We urge the Biden administration to place a high priority on supporting U.S. space activities by building on recent national space policy decisions that reflect long-standing U.S. principles while abandoning the divisive and antagonistic rhetoric that has accompanied those policy changes," the Secure World Foundation wrote in a policy brief for the Biden team.
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