On space exploration, Trump should match empty words with action

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UT researchers have discovered that Mars’ ice deposits hold nearly as much water as Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In a speech riddled with confused rhetoric, where leering ethno-nationalism and the flaccid specter of traditional American exceptionalism seemed to wrestle for control of the podium, President Donald Trump — addressing a joint session of Congress on Tuesday — managed to deliver at least one lucid line. It came toward the end, when he declared: “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.”

The president has long touted a renewed focus on space exploration as one avenue in which he hopes to “make America great again.” At a rally in August, Trump compared the American space program to a “third-world nation.” At a rally in Florida last October, he promised to refocus NASA’s mission on space exploration. And in his inaugural address, Trump declared that America stands “at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space.”

It’s a problematic vision, to be sure. For one thing, turning NASA’s attention to the stars would mean diverting it from climate change. For another, it’s debatable whether human beings are really needed in space. Their presence has an undeniable romantic value, which shouldn’t be dismissed, but with the advent of modern robotics, it’s hard to say what practical purpose they would serve.

Nevertheless, Earth’s limited resources and the perpetually questing nature of human ambition both suggest some form of future for our species in outer space. To embrace that future has been the goal of not just Trump, but most American presidents since Kennedy. It’s a crowd-pleaser, after all.

What can Trump do to achieve his stated goal of American footprints on other worlds? Well, he can start by not cutting NASA’s budget. His budget proposal calls for $54 billion in cuts to nondefense spending, and in 2014, an expert panel found that a mission to Mars would cost $80-100 billion.

Some of that can come out of NASA’s current budget, but as the panel noted, it will also require contributions from other countries. As Maggie Koerth-Baker writes for FiveThirtyEight, getting to Mars will require “an international coalition of governments, private companies and foundations.” She adds, “it’s unlikely that the first human habitation on Mars will be an American ship, carrying a crew of Americans to plant an American flag in the dust.”

So Trump might also consider dialing down the “America First” rhetoric. Trump’s vision of protectionism and unilateralism is incompatible with a realistic future in human space exploration.

Lastly, Trump could appoint a new director of NASA to replace the current acting director, and staff the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which he still hasn’t done. He’s not exactly late on this: President Obama appointed his first NASA director in May 2009 — four months after his inauguration. But doing so now would signal that he is serious about getting America back into space, as White House insiders insist that he is.

Confused rhetoric or not, the president’s speech on Tuesday was hailed in the media as a success. It’s ironic, of course, that a man who once called politicians “all talk, no action” achieved his first ostensibly presidential moment by doing nothing at all. With his address, he raked in heaps of undeserved praise for leadership and vision. But instead of talking about propelling America into the future of space exploration, he could actually do it.

Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas. Follow him on twitter @samgroves