Big change on the horizon for NASA under Trump
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Throughout the presidential campaign, I commented to several people that I didn’t think the election outcome would make a big difference for NASA. I had many other reasons I was supporting Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE, but I knew space advisers in both campaigns, and we had similar views on several major aspects of what needed to be done to support a more effective and sustainable space program.

However, given the outcome of the congressional election and learning more specifically who is (and isn’t) involved as space advisers, I anticipate a larger appetite for a change agenda and a better than expected potential to get at least some of their agenda accomplished.

Here are a few areas of anticipated focus for the Trump administration:

  • NASA’s bureaucracy/infrastructure is much too large and expensive.
  • NASA shouldn’t be spending so much money on Earth sciences.
  • The Moon is a better and more important destination than Mars
  • Entrepreneurial space should play a larger role in all aspects of space.
  • Space activities cut across international, civil, military and commercial arenas and should be run out of the White House, by a National Space Council, reporting to Vice President Pence.

Changing elected leadership is the fabric of our democracy, and federal agencies are part of the administration. Every government agency and contractor base believes its agency is on the right path. It is the responsibility of any transition team to find that out for themselves.

Even if you believe the Clinton team would have come in without a mandate for big changes, the opposite is expected of the Trump team. The Trump transition is likely being given similar direction to what the Obama transition team was given in 2008: Go find out what is wrong with these agencies and report back on how to fix them.

Neither Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE nor Hillary Clinton said much about the space program during the campaign. I would not mistake this for a lack of intention or appetite to address NASA and space issues in the new administration. What has and hasn’t been said, and who is or who isn’t saying it so far, sends a very strong message.

The space community continually clamors for presidential candidates to say something about space during the campaign, only to pick apart and criticize every utterance. Each statement or sound bite is criticized as being too general or as not mentioning particular projects of importance to varying constituencies. It should come as no surprise that candidates are reticent to opine on the topic during the campaign. One of Norm Augustine’s great musings is that “everyone loves the space program; they just love THEIR space program.”

NASA issues are more parochial than partisan, but partisanship has crept into Congress’s funding decisions for NASA and the space program over the past few years. The combination of partisanship and parochialism on Capitol Hill has severely undermined NASA’s ability to advance meaningful and sustainable science and technology objectives. The Trump administration, with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, is likely to increase partisanship, but also has the opportunity to limit some of the negative affects of parochialism.

The most recent partisan aspect of NASA’s budget has been funding for Earth sciences. Attacks from the right have slowed the government’s overall ability to monitor and understand our changing climate. The Trump administration will almost certainly request smaller budgets for NASA Earth sciences, and those cuts are likely to be supported by the Congress. The predominant Republican view seems to be that NASA should focus on its more widely known objective of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, and let NOAA handle weather predictions.

The Trump administration may, however, be better able to address some of the worst parochial aspects of NASA funding. Presidents are by design, less parochial than Congress. They don’t represent a particular district and are structured to advance ideas and budgets that are good for America — at least those parts of America likely to reelect them. President Obama’s first NASA budget request was focused on advancing the long-term objectives of the agency.

Everyone knew canceling the Constellation human space flight program would be unpopular in the states that had contracts, for example, but felt it was necessary to advance a meaningful and sustainable space program.

Congressional attacks on Obama’s initial budget request were both partisan and parochial — but primarily parochial. Although not unexpected, these attacks came just as the administration was focused on holding 60 votes in the Senate for healthcare and other priority issues.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s perceived lack of enthusiastic support of the White House agenda gave an opening to the opposition. Without a willingness to take on these special interests, the administration made a Faustian bargain to secure congressional support for Earth sciences, technology and commercial crew, in exchange for support of developing a large expendable rocket (the Space Launch System or SLS) and deep space capsule (Orion) for human spaceflight.  While these parochial interests still exist, a Trump White House has the opportunity to more effectively defend its own agenda.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), one the president-elect’s most senior advisers, understands space issues and is a strong believer in commercial space development as the goal of space settlement. Former Congressman Robert Walker (R-Pa.) and former National Space Council executive director Mark Albrecht share many of Gingrich’s views on the NASA bureaucracy and goals for NASA. Neither Albrecht nor Walker appear to be anxious to return to government service, but will certainly select a like-minded administrator.

A trusted NASA administrator, working effectively with White House stakeholders such as the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Economic Council, could be extremely powerful. As the leader of an independent agency, reporting to the president, his/her ability to influence policy is unmatched. Cabinet members are actually managed more closely by Cabinet Affairs.

Even if the chairman of the Appropriations Committee has different ideas, the power of a strong leadership team with like-minded views and an ability to communicate should not be underestimated. 

A Trump administration has the opportunity to move their agenda forward in Congress and change the trajectory of the agency. If that trajectory leads NASA to a less parochial agency that invests in a more efficient, sustainable space program, they have my support. But if they become more partisan and cut one of the core purposes of the agency, Earth sciences, then you may find me supporting the legislation aimed at limiting presidential influence over NASA. After all, where you stand depends on where you sit.


Garver is general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association, International and the former deputy administrator of NASA.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.