The White House wants to open a “new era” of US domination of space conquest, but its ambitions are thwarted by budgetary restrictions, vacancies crucial to the private sector, experts said.
During a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Nasa, Florida this week, US Vice President Mike Pence ignited hundreds of Space Agency employees and subcontractors by stating that “under President Trump, we will accomplish more in space than we ever thought possible, including “return to the moon” and put “American boots on the surface of Mars.”
But once the joy disappeared, the questions began. What did Mr. Pence mean?
“The + Moon + could mean anything – commercial, robotic, international or otherwise,” said Phil Larson, executive councilor under the chairmanship of Barack Obama and former head of the private SpaceX launch company.
According to him, the statements of Mike Pence “have no substance, just flourishes”.
John Logsdon, a former director of the George Washington University Institute for Space Policy, said: “I think that Thursday’s speech obviously lacked substance because there is no No substance”.
Several experts do not hide their skepticism about the ambition of the Trump administration, noting that crucial posts remain vacant.
For example, a record was beaten on US National Day, July 4: the longest period without the appointment of the new leader of Nasa after the election of a new president.
The precedent dates back to 1971, with 164 days of the vacancy, under President Richard Nixon.
And the head of the White House Office of Technology and Science Policy, a key post for designing NASA’s strategy, has not been nominated.
It is common for a new president to review the space projects of his predecessor and to make rapid changes.
If Donald Trump launched the process fairly late, “he has now put in place a mechanism to review the current program,” Logsdon said.
This is the reactivation of the National Council for Space – announced last month – along with the setting up of an Advisory Committee made up of industry experts.
Mike Pence, a longtime fan of space, heads the National Council, which aims to guide space policy by bringing together several ministers (Foreign Affairs, Defense, Trade, Transport, Homeland Security), intelligence officials, Military and the boss of Nasa.
His first meeting will be before the end of summer, according to Pence.
Then the funds allocated to NASA and the projects to which they are directed will show the reality of the intentions.
“Any major changes are expected next year,” Logsdon said.
The draft budget developed by the Trump administration has not yet been validated by Congress, but it forecasts a drop of 0.8% to 19.1 billion dollars.
He canceled the project to capture an asteroid, size in the funding of several missions of the study of climate change and Earth sciences. But it does not evoke new missions.
The next NASA budget is to be released in February 2018.
“Everyone is waiting, everyone is impatient in the space community,” Logsdon said.
Two conceptions are opposed.
On the one hand, supporters of the old system when Nasa supervised the construction of launchers and capsules, financed by lucrative government contracts. The giant Lockheed Martin contract is a recent example: it receives billions of dollars to build the Orion capsule of Nasa, which could one day bring humans to Mars.
On the other hand, the emerging and dynamic private aerospace industry with actors like SpaceX and Boeing manufactures the next generation of astronaut transport vessels in Earth orbit to the International Space Station.
Which side will enjoy the Trump Presidency remains a mystery at this point.
Eric Stallmer, president of the Federation of commercial space flights, said he was “optimistic” about the new National Council for Space.
“I think the commercial industry will play a big role in helping shape the national agenda,” he said.