Election only the start of a long-term NASA transition

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WASHINGTON — A presidential transition process that will start in earnest at NASA after Election Day in November will not wrap up until long after Inauguration Day in January, an agency official said Oct. 25.

While both Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump established transition teams after accepting their parties’ nominations this summer, months ahead of the Nov. 8 general election, that planning has yet to involve “landing teams” for NASA.

“We’re at the point now where, any day now, we could hear about individual names for the landing team for NASA,” said Michael French, NASA chief of staff, speaking at a meeting of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) here. “NASA has not received this information yet.”

While the transition team’s work will ramp up after the election, French said it will last long after the next president takes office Jan. 20. “I think there’s a bit of an overemphasis on the November-to-January timeframe,” he said. That’s because the next administration will have to quickly put together a fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, likely to be released in the spring.

NASA has, so far, created a “current services” budget for 2018 that includes only ongoing programs. “The new team can come in, look at that current services budget, and provide that first level of tweaks that they want,” he said. “It’s a massively truncated process” from the usual development of a budget proposal, he noted.

French said that, because of that, the transition process will effectively continue for most of 2017, until the new administration develops its first budget proposal under the standard process, for fiscal year 2019. “You’ll have the whole year of 2017 of activity, of the new team providing its own policy guidance, tweaks and questions,” he said.

In his COMSTAC talk, French identified several near-term issues for the next administration at NASA. At the top of his list was the future of the International Space Station, including new roles for commercial partners in the station and whether to extend the station’s operations beyond 2024.

French said the station’s future would be a near-term issue for the next administration because of long-term budget projections that it will develop will soon run up against that 2024 date. “The question of an ISS follow-on and ISS extension start entering the budget horizon” by 2019, he said.

Other issues he identified that would be near-term issues for the next administration included the expanded use of partnerships, small satellites and launch vehicles, cooperation with China, space technology and aeronautics.

Later at the COMSTAC meeting, two policy experts, linked with but not formally representing the major presidential candidates, offered their opinions about the next administration should do.

Rudy deLeon, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who held leadership posts at the Pentagon during the administration of President Bill Clinton, urged the next administration not to make major changes to NASA’s major programs. “We need to keep things on track,” he said. “One of the things we don’t need is a big blue-ribbon commission that tears everything up and says that there’s not enough money for this or that.”

DeLeon did endorse a “modest increase” in funding for NASA’s human spaceflight program, but said that NASA’s overall long-term plans were “solid.” He also supported more partnerships with the private sector and engagement with other nations.

Robert Walker, the former Republican congressman who noted he became Trump’s space policy advisor just in the last two weeks, said he was asked by the campaign to develop a space policy “that has real change.” He called the one that resulted “visionary, disruptive, coordinating and resilient.”

That policy framework has several key characteristics, including the restoration of the National Space Council, hypersonic technology development and use of small satellites. It would also have a “stretch goal,” he said, “of human exploration of the entire solar system by the end of the century.”

DeLeon and Walker, though, shared a number of common goals, including greater commercial use and an extended life of the International Space Station. “I can’t imagine that, in 2028, you’re going to dump a $100 billion asset into the ocean,” Walker said of a potential retirement of the ISS.

“We’ve invested too much to just simply turn the keys off and have another one of those Skylab moments,” deLeon said of the ISS, adding there may be various ways commercial ventures could make use of some or all of the station in the future.

Both also supported a potential role for China on the ISS. “I’d invite China on board the space station, so you have cooperation in orbit rather than hostility,” Walker said, acknowledging there are broader policy issues about working with China. “The fact is, we’re probably in a position right now where we can learn from China as much as they would potentially learn from us.”

Those shared positions, deLeon suggested, could be a throwback to an earlier era of politics. “There’s no reason why we can’t find bipartisanship, particularly in something like space exploration and commercial space, because it’s good for the country,” he said. “It’s not a partisan issue.”