NASA Stands At A Crossroads As Washington Ponders Leadership And Strategy

NASA is suddenly facing an existential crisis as it begins to move forward in an era of Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress.

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Congress held its first hearing this week to discuss the future direction of NASA and surprisingly enough, nobody mentioned President Trump. They did quote JFK at one point, repeating what he’d said about America’s need to win the space race and land on the Moon.

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology met on Thursday to discuss, as they called it, the “past, present, and future” of space exploration. A congressman from Colorado reminded those present in the hearing that no president was more important in the history of space exploration than JFK. The congressman even quoted Kennedy’s famous Moon speech:

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“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The meeting was a precursor for the official decisions on the future of US involvement in space exploration. The scientific community began to talk about where they see NASA heading under Trump and they were in general consensus that NASA is facing an identity crisis. For many, especially those who remember Armstrong making his first steps on the Moon and Kennedy’s motivational speeches, JFK remains the guiding light as to what we should aspire to. The problem is that the Apollo missions consumed 4.5% of the federal budget, whilst NASA now gets less than half a percent of the budget and doesn’t have a population expecting to win a Cold War-style race.

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Brian Babin, Republican congressman from Texas who chairs the Space Subcommittee said during the meeting that “It is very difficult to explore a universe of infinite wonder with a finite budget.”

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This doesn’t mean that NASA gets an easy ride. They are still expected to achieve the unimaginable feats such as visiting Mars, Venus and the moon. Some, at the hearing, asked for specific dates for Mars missions and asked to bring the previously proposed 2033 date forward by a few years in case China were planning to beat the US.

Most people at the hearing had a similar thought about who would be the next NASA chief; Jim Bridenstine. He is a Republican from Oklahoma who wants to take us back to the Moon as he believes it is strategically invaluable to the United States. He mentioned China’s recent interest in the Moon and threatened that they would win a moon-race if we allowed them to get there first to set up a base.

Many, as expected, grumbled about the NASA’s earth-sciences division which has been under threat as of late. Democrats were surprised that Republicans hadn’t even begun to talk about the earth-sciences division when the day was almost done.

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Almost everyone present, which included amongst the politicians, former NASA astronauts and various members of the scientific community, agreed that NASA needed more of a budget. Lawmakers agreed that if more money was to be granted, everybody would have to be in agreement on where it went. Does NASA want to commit to Mars? Maybe to Europa? A Lunar base? Maybe something entirely different. Either way, NASA had to have consensus, and for that, NASA needs leadership.

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Far from keeping the vehicle ticking over, the acting NASA administrator took the initiative this week to announce that he wanted to increase the speed of the SLS development. He said that the first SLS launches were to be manned by NASA astronauts, which hadn’t been expected until a few flights had been successfully completed. Changes in the SLS development mean moving budgets around which could harm others and many think that the earth-sciences division could be in trouble.

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“I believe that if we continue on the current course with the multiple paths that we’re on and the current budget, the committee hearing that will take place 10 years from now will say, ‘What a disappointing decade we had,’” And that we’ll be negligibly closer to landing humans on Mars than we are today.” Former Goddard director – Tom Young.

Texas Republican, Lamar Smith, chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and he revealed that the committee hopes to achieve a consensus on a bill that lays out the agencies long term goals. The NASA Transition Authorization Act will hopefully get passed by Congress and provide some clarity on the future of NASA. Importantly, the bill lays out the agencies top priority as getting a manned Mars mission under way.

Trump could change the bill and shift NASA’s focus if he chose to act against the wishes of congress and many in the room, despite not talking about Trump, will be anxiously waiting to see what he wants to do with the future of NASA. His policies could reshape NASA entirely, or maintain the status-quo.

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