The people and policy shaping NASA’s future under Trump

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This presidential transition has been, in many respects, unlike any other in recent history. President-elect Donald Trump has eschewed the traditional post-election news conferences, relying more on Twitter to broadcast updates on his plans. Political reporters have been reduced to staking out the lobby of Trump Tower, keeping tabs on visitors to determine who might be in the running for various jobs in the next administration.

The same people-watching, on a smaller scale, is taking place when it comes to NASA. The space community waited for weeks for the transition to name its “landing team” for the agency while rosters for the teams handling other departments filled up. It wasn’t until three weeks after the election that the transition named its first NASA landing team member, Chris Shank.

Shank is no stranger to NASA: he worked there from 2005 to 2009, when Mike Griffin was administrator, serving as director of strategic investments and leading its office of strategic communications. He had been the policy director of the House Science Committee prior to joining the landing team.

He was soon at work at NASA Headquarters. “We’ve had a great couple of days with Chris,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at a Dec. 9 Space Transportation Association luncheon. “He’s just starting the meetings with us, mostly at this point catching up on where we are on items. He’s asking a lot of questions and we’re working with him pretty well.”

At the moment Lightfoot was speaking, Shank — who was at the luncheon — got some backup. The Trump transition office named six more people to the transition team, now making it, despite the late start, as large as the previous two transition teams combined. [Since this article was originally published, the transition team has added another person to the NASA landing team, Charles Miller.]

Several of the new members have NASA experience. Steve Cook, an executive with Dynetics, spent nearly 20 years at the Marshall Space Flight Center, including managing development of the Ares launch vehicles during the Constellation program. Sandy Magnus was a NASA astronaut who flew on three missions, including the final space shuttle flight in 2011, leaving the agency to become executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2012. Rodney Liesveld retired from NASA in October after working there for more than a decade as a senior policy adviser.

Others have not directly worked for NASA, but either have experience working with the agency or, at least, knowledge of it. Jack Burns, a University of Colorado professor with an interest in lunar exploration, chaired the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee in 2009 and 2010. Greg Autry, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California, has studied and written extensively about the commercial space industry. Jeff Waksman is a physicist who was a research fellow in the House, focusing on science and technology issues.

The landing team members are keeping quiet about their activities, but the space community is trying to fill that vacuum with speculation based on their backgrounds, much like the reporters camped out in Trump Tower. For example, several members are veterans of the Constellation program, or have an interest in lunar exploration: could that mean, people wonder, that NASA’s Journey to Mars gets detoured to the moon in the Trump administration?

Yet there may be less obvious concurrence on other major issues, such as the Space Launch System. Cook’s Dynetics is an SLS contractor and has proposed an advanced booster as a future upgrade to the vehicle. Autry, though, has criticized the development of the rocket given plans by companies to develop their own-heavy-lift rockets. “We will discontinue spending on Space Launch System (SLS), a giant government rocket, lacking both innovation and a mission,” Autry wrote in an op-ed published on Forbes.com in October, saying that Blue Origin and SpaceX “have leapfrogged it with more efficient, reusable boosters.”

However, it’s dangerous to try and read too much into the composition of the landing team. Their role is not to make policy, but instead report on the status of the agency to the larger transition team. The landing team will also disband on Jan. 20, and, based on previous transitions, while some members may find positions in NASA when the new administration begins, others will return to their original jobs.

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Walking through Trump’s space policy

The one person who is talking publicly about the next president’s space policy is someone technically not part of the transition team.

“I don’t pretend to speak for the transition team. I’m not a part of the transition team,” said Robert Walker, the space policy adviser in the final weeks of Trump’s campaign, in a speech Dec. 7 at the 11th Annual Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law in Washington.

However, he said that he was advising the transition team, suggesting they were seeking his counsel. “There is, in fact, a desire to follow a lot of the recommendations that the campaign made,” he said, “so that’s one reason why they talk to me.”

Walker, in his speech, went through that policy he helped develop — completing a draft in just one day, he recalled — that has remained unchanged from when it was released in October. That features topics from extending the life of the International Space Station using public-private partnerships to a renewed emphasis on hypersonics research for military applications.

That policy also includes re-establishing the National Space Council, which last existed when George H.W. Bush was president. As in the past, the council would be chaired by the vice president. Mike Pence, the vice president-elect, has little background on space, not being active on the topic during his six terms in the House.

Despite that limited background, Walker said in an interview after his speech that Pence was interested in chairing the council. “He is excited about doing the space council,” he said, adding he believed Pence “will find time for it” among his other responsibilities.

The revived council, he said, would coordinate all government space activities, and cited as one example potential overlaps in heavy-lift launch development between NASA’s SLS and commercial efforts. “Somebody should be looking at that and deciding whether or not all those various technologies are needed,” he said. “That’s a role the National Space Council could play.”

Walker also defended one aspect of the policy that has become a lightning rod of controversy: shifting Earth science from NASA to other agencies. Many scientists and politicians have criticized that proposal, believing it an effort to end climate science outright.

“Some people say they’re going to turn off the satellites that are monitoring the climate,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, in a Dec. 14 speech at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. “If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch it’s own damn satellite.”

Asked about that criticism, Walker claimed it was misplaced. “I’ve seen some misinterpretation saying that we were looking at ending the whole business of climate science. That wasn’t the concept at all,” he said. “The concept here is to put it in places like NSF, NOAA and places that have vast expertise in those areas.” He didn’t elaborate about how such a transfer would take place.

Walker acknowledged that the policy’s implementation will be shaped by the people who do take roles in the administration and at NASA, adding that he had no interest being NASA administrator. “This is not exactly where the team will go,” he said of the policy. “Ultimately, personnel make policy.”

That means the people-watching, at Trump Tower and in Washington, will continue to determine who will shape the future of NASA, and how.