Budget likely to be first indication of Trump’s space priorities
WASHINGTON – The space community likely has a few more months to wait before it gets an idea of what U.S. space policy under the Donald Trump administration may look like, a top aerospace analyst said Jan. 25.
“The first big milestone that we’ll see may well be the release of the administration’s first budget omnibus, which we will see sometime in the spring. That’s going to be significant,” said Carissa Christensen, co-founder of The Tauri Group, an analytic consulting firm that pays close attention to the space sector and has contracts with NASA and the Defense Department.
The consensus among budget watchers in Washington is that the end of March is the earliest the new administration is likely to release its first budget proposal. That will be the first opportunity everyone has to see just what space programs the White House considers priorities — and which ones it could do without.
“We don’t yet know all that much about the new administration’s space priorities,” Christensen said at a breakfast here hosted by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “Although I think there have been some sign posts.”
She pointed to Trump’s repeated comments that he wants to bolster the U.S. military, and Pentagon officials’ increasing concern about Russian and Chinese threats in space. Milspace is likely to see a funding increase, and contracting opportunities for the private sector could follow.
“We as a nation are incredibly reliant for our defense on space,” Christensen said.
There’s a chance, however, that there won’t be as much clarity on civilian space programs such as the International Space Station, which the Obama administration committed to keep in service until 2028.
“The budget this spring may be too soon to see any space station direction,” she said. “It’s got to be coordinated with international partners, it’s a complicated issue, and it probably does not rise to the top of a new administration’s priority list.”
Another thing the private sector should keep an eye on is to what extent Trump may try to roll-back Obama’s space priorities, such as studying climate change.
“Late last year, the previous administration unveiled plans to spend something like $25 million on an Earth-science-related commercial data buy, so it’ll be interesting to see if that survives the transition,” she said.
A leading candidate to run NASA under Trump, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), has been a big proponent of commercial data buys.
Christensen said she believes space will be a priority for Trump over the next four years, pointing to the NASA transition team as one example.
“The large transition team for NASA consisted of many well known and career space [experts] rather than outsiders,” she said. “I suggest that this reflects that the new administration values this sector and its workforce and what it does. And, as the president said in his inaugural address, that the new administration stands ready to ‘unlock the mysteries of space’.”
Yet there also remains the possibility of Trump’s talk of tariffs and trade restrictions potentially harming international investment in space enterprises.
Christensen said the devil is in the details.
“I think it really depends on how it’s implemented,” she said. “I think it really does come down to the specifics of any policy.”
Yet she remains optimistic that space could be an area where politicians find common ground.
“You think of the conventional stereotypical views of the Republican and Democratic parties: business oriented small government versus public good oriented more active government,” Christensen said.
“In the space industry, there’s been a commercial push that was advocated for by a Democratic administration,” she said. “There’s been commitment to large government systems that has been supported by Republican members of Congress. So to me, I do not take away form that any more than the view that there is true bipartisanship interest in space and that people are making decisions about space in a way that is different from the way they make decisions about other programs and activities.”