There’s a new frontier in space exploration, but will Trump be on board?
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There’s a jump ball underway in space, and it’ll be on full display Wednesday at a Senate hearing chaired by Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzBare bones repeal plan gains steam in Senate Dem lawmaker: Trump should fire Sessions GOP Senate candidate: concerns about Trump are 'coming to fruition' MORE (R-Texas). Will the administration and Congress be pro-innovation or pro the old way of doing business? And will the team in the White House really look for opportunities to run government more like a business? There’s no better bellwether for answering these questions than the space debate going on right now. 

While folks like to talk about the moon or Mars or asteroids, the debate is not so much about destination. It’s about how we go anywhere, and it means dealing with the details — that is, what contract or procurement approach spurs the most competition and innovation while giving taxpayers the best bang for their buck. 

On Monday, President Trump called the International Space Station to congratulate U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson on becoming our nation’s most traveled spacefarer. But in the course of that call, the conversation pivoted to Mars. He wants NASA to go in his first term, maybe his second. Will NASA be going in partnership with the commercial space companies you read about, like SpaceX and Blue Origin? Or will the old way of doing business win out? That’s the real question that insiders are watching — and the coalitions that support both sides.

If non-defense spending is going to be cut,  per Trump’s budget request, humans to Mars in less than a decade is not just impossible, it’s laughable, especially with an outdated approach.

But here’s where the opportunity lies. If we make smart choices, we can do more with what we already have. We can expand what we can achieve — even in an era of tight budgets — by being smarter about how we partner and the technologies we invest in. 

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Americans routinely give NASA a glowing approval rating — it’s not hard to see why — but it’s easy to forget that NASA is only a small part of the global space industry. NASA’s $19 billion budget may make it the largest government space agency in the world, but the size of the global commercial space industry towers over it. 

 

While some say space isn’t commercial, tell that to the world’s largest satellite TV provider, AT&T’s DirecTV, which has over a dozen operational satellites in orbit above the earth, earning the company over $33 billion in 2014 revenue. Or tell that to the Satellite Industry Association, which syas that the global space industry market size was $335 billion, the vast majority of which is made up of commercial companies serving commercial customers. 

We’re living in such an exciting time in space, with new discoveries nearly every day, rockets landing and taking off again, and tourist hops up and back to space within grasp. This renaissance is not due solely to government programs and taxpayer dollars — it’s the unleashing of capitalism in a new frontier. It’s the revival of space development, of getting the public excited about these new ventures — that is the major source of this space resurgence.

Unfortunately, much of this exciting progress is at risk.

At Cruz’s hearing, the potential of this uniquely American industry will be discussed. What’s at stake is not whether there will continue to be a government space program or a commercial space industry, but whether the U.S. government and the Trump administration will seize the opportunity and embrace this new era, one that will help create whole new industries and thousands of American jobs in the process.

Some legislators, including folks elected as defenders of free enterprise, would rather defend old ways of thinking than help NASA, the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies take advantage of the commercial space age. They want to shut down or cut funding to some of the most innovative programs that are delivering for taxpayers, including Commercial Resupply Services, which funds cargo delivery to the International Space Station, and Commercial Crew, which is set to end America’s dependence upon Russia for astronaut transportation to space.

If Congress doesn’t support these critical first steps, it risks stifling the even greater future possibilities of the commercial space revolution. Effective partnership between government space industries and commercial space providers offers the chance to achieve an overall American space program that is worthy of our great nation, without breaking the bank.

So who will the Trump administration give the ball to?

 

Phil Larson was previously in the Obama White House as senior adviser for space and innovation. Follow him @philliplarson


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