On April 24th, President Trump placed a long-distance video call to the International Space Station. The reason behind his call was to congratulate astronaut Peggy Whitson on setting a new record for most time spent in space by an American. During their talk, he asked her when she thought that America might see a manned mission to Mars, at which point she reminded him that that is ultimately up to legislation that he has already put into action.
“Tell me: Mars.” said the President, “What do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars?”
“Well,” Whitson replied, “I think as your bill directed, it’ll be approximately in the 2030s.”
“Well we want to try to do it during my first term or at worst during my second term,” said the most powerful man in the free world. “So we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”
This debacle more or less speaks for the current state of space policy, which, depending on who you ask, is going through a period of instability and confusion.
No matter who you ask, humans have big plans for space. The biggest questions surrounding those plans, are when they will happen, what their purpose will be, and, most importantly, how they will be paid for.
“It’s an open question at the moment,” said Casey Dreier, director of policy at the Planetary Society, in a phone interview on March 7. “The stretch goal is humans exploring the solar system by the end of the century.”
Dr. Scott Pace, director of policy at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, had a differing opinion.
“That’s not particularly true,” said Pace about the future of space exploration being uncertain, “The budget is actually fairly decent for NASA given the nature of the environment.”
These two experts are at odds over how exactly the legislative future of space exploration is going to play out. However, they both said that the long-term goal of the United States Government with regard to space is lunar development, and sending a mission to Mars.
According to Dreier, there has been talk of a potential “lunar village” that would serve as a natural successor to the International Space Station, a cooperative satellite community with astronauts from several nations. Neither he nor Pace mentioned any concrete plans by the U.S. Government, however there is a project under development by the European Space Agency (ESA) which aims to set up a base on the moon that would participate in business, mining, research, and tourism.
Johann-Dietrich Wörner, director general of the ESA, said on April 11 at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO that a moon village would “pave the way for human missions to Mars.”
According to a an article Dreier wrote for the Planetary Society about the first NASA budget outline from the Trump Administration, the budget allocates $624 million for research and development. This is $16 million less than in 2016, and $222 million less than projected for 2018 by the Obama Administration.
Again, positions differ.
“The joke then was that flat is the new up,” said Pace about Obama era funding for NASA. “In the Obama years we went from a two percent growth rate, dropped dramatically one year, came back up next year. Dropped flat again and then dropped flatter.”
Pace said funding has been volatile over the past few years, and that “it remains to be seen” what the budget situation will be in the Trump Administration.
Some of the confusion regarding the future may be able to be cleared up by understanding exactly what type of funding these experts are talking about. According to Dreier, a fundamental distinction in space funding is that between civil space and defense space. Civil space is all about research and exploration, and defense space deals exclusively with military applications of space technology.
“The idea of space as a sanctuary is gone,” Pace said, the focus on “military space is more of a pragmatic issue than an ideological issue.” Pace cited the need to compete with Chinese and Russian interests as part of the reason why he thinks the fiscal focus should be on defense space.
Although Pace’s focus is primarily on defense applications, Dreier remains a proponent of exploration and development, as well as acknowledging the importance of military applications. “Militarization is a big part of space, it’s a big part of the budget,” he said. “Most of the money in space is spent on militarization”
Pace’s motivation may not be an “ideological issue” but the divide between their two stances most certainly is.
This could account for why Pace believes that the Trump administration is so far doing a better job of funding space programs. President Trump’s budget proposal removes $54 million from non-defense agencies such as the EPA, State Department, and National Institutes of Health, and re-allocates them to the Department of Defense (DoD).
The views of Pace and Dreier are more aligned when it comes to potential practical developments on the moon. Dreier said that NASA has not released any intentions as far as lunar projects, but they would likely involve the creation of power. He said that, given the amount of ice on the moon, any long-term settlements there would likely involve using electrolysis to turn the ice into fuel.
Dreier said that a moon “colony wouldn’t just be people living on the moon, more like an oil rig in the middle of the ocean.”
Pace, in response to Dreier’s analogy, said “That’s a little too narrow. I would say an oil rig plus Antarctica. The oil rig analogy is apt, but I would add an Antarctic research center to it, as well as tourism.”
The idea of taking a vacation to the moon might seem far-fetched to the casual observer, but it is the most rapidly approaching stage of manned space exploration. In fact, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, recently unveiled plans to fly two tourists around the moon in 2018.
“NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher,” NASA said in a statement following the announcement “We will work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely meets the contractual obligations to return the launch of astronauts to U.S. soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
“For more than a decade,” the statement said, “NASA has invested in private industry to develop capabilities for the American people and seed commercial innovation to advance humanity’s future in space.”
According to Dreier, approximately one half of SpaceX’s funding comes directly from NASA. The two have a somewhat mutual relationship, as NASA controls a lot of the private company’s funding situation, but SpaceX own their own intellectual property.
“What you’re going to see is a continued mutual dependency between these companies,” Drier said.
Mars One is another major player in the future of space policy. Mars One is a mission that aims to create the first human settlement on Mars. They began selecting their astronauts in 2013, and are currently in the fourth round of narrowing down the candidates.
One of the benefits of privatized ventures into space is the ability for permanence. Whereas NASA missions to space are always scientific and subsequently have to be two way, private colonization missions are not tied to this. The astronauts that Mars One say they are planning on sending in the 2020s will never come back.
Of course none of this will be easy. Mars is very far away. There is no set measure of the distance, because it and the Earth are constantly moving in their orbits, but the closest together they have been in recorded history was a pedestrian 34.8 million miles apart in 2003.
It does not take an expert on space policy to understand and report the challenges facing private companies such as SpaceX and Mars One.
“I mean, it’s probably not gonna work,” Maia Hatchett, a freshman at American University said, “There’s a reason that Earth is the way it is and all the other planets aren’t.”
Despite skepticism such as this, both the private and public sectors remain heavily invested in further exploration of space. There are also a lot of people who wish to work on such projects. Even after three rounds of elimination, Mars One still has 100 potential astronauts to choose from.
Additionally, people like Angelo Lucciola, 21, will soon be entering the workforce. Lucciola studies aerospace engineering, and is the president of the Telescope Club at the Florida Institute of Technology.
“I’ve always liked flying things,” Lucciola said, “just like the physics and how they work, just riding on them I’m not the biggest fan.”
Though he primarily studies engineering that has to do with airplanes, Lucciola said he has a deep interest in space, which originally led him to his field of study.
“I’m looking forward to it, should be soon,” he said about the possibility of a manned mission to Mars, “but I think we should focus on the moon first and let the private companies handle it.”
Lucciola may or may not be right, which is fitting. The experts have different views, and the President is asking individual astronauts to speed up the results of his own legislation. There is no doubt that humanity as a whole has an irrepressible urge to roam beyond our atmosphere, but nobody is quite sure exactly how that is supposed to happen.