Great news from President Trump’s State of the Union speech: America is back in the space game! As the President honored Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, who was seated in the visitor’s gallery, he also had this important news to report: “This year, American astronauts will go back to space on American rockets.”
It’s pretty hard to find any wiggle room in that promise — except that Presidents could have said the same thing in 2016, 2017 and 2018 too, and it didn’t happen. Don’t rule it out for 2019, but don’t rule it in, either. Especially since, less than 24 hours after Trump’s speech, NASA announced yet more delays in this year’s planned launches.
The long-promised goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program has been to move away from the era in which NASA would essentially order up precisely the rocket it wanted and then contract the job out to one of the major aerospace companies. Instead, the agency would offer various companies R&D money to design their own commercial vehicles, and then lease space on whatever they build. It’s like the difference between ordering a bespoke suit or buying off the rack—and the rack is always cheaper. Except when it’s not.
The CCDev program began in 2010, one year before the space shuttle was retired, with the hope of bringing along next-generation vehicles quickly and limiting the time the U.S. would be dependent on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to get to and from the International Space Station. (That dependency, if you’re following along at home, is in its eighth year and counting.) The program allocated an initial $51 million to five competing companies to develop preliminary plans for a crew vehicle and accompanying rocket. In 2011, the government committed $270 million to four of the five companies for further development. In successive years, the annual budget requests grew to $397 million, then $597 million, and on up to $1.2 billion in 2016. NASA ultimately chose two companies to build the spacecraft, Boeing and SpaceX, and inked contracts with them worth a combined $7.9 billion.
The first launches of the two ships—the SpaceX Dragon and the Boeing Starliner—were slated to begin three years ago, but the target date has slipped year after year, due both to budget cuts and slower-than-promised development. At the moment, the first unmanned test of the SpaceX vehicle is set for sometime in the first quarter of this year, though it has already slipped from a promised January launch, then a promised February date; the earlier delay was due in part at least to the recently ended government shutdown, a detail the President did not mention in his speech. A new schedule released Wednesday calls for a launch sometime In March. Boeing’s first unmanned test was said to be coming in March, but that has slipped to April. SpaceX’s first crewed launch was supposed follow in June, but that’s now been delayed to July; Boeing’s could come in August.
But could is the key for both companies. As always, the best way to gauge any NASA promise is to apply the Count the Conditionals rule. The more times the agency boasts about what a spacecraft could or should or would do, the less likely it is that it’s going to do anything at all. So this year, to paraphrase the President, American astronauts could go back to space on American rockets. Unless they don’t.
Overall, Trump’s record on space has been uneven. Whichever President is in office when the Boeing and SpaceX crew vehicles finally fly will engage in the usual self-celebratory chest-thumping. It’s what they do, and if the flights happen on Trump’s watch, he’s entitled. But he’ll be celebrating an Obama-era policy that simply bore fruit during his presidency.
What of Trump’s other space plans? It’s hard to argue with his decision last year to re-establish the National Space Council, first brought together under President Eisenhower. A White House-level advisory group on space never hurts and can sometimes accomplish a lot, as it did during the original space race with the Soviet Union.
However, Trump’s plans for a Space Force are—how to put this delicately?—not fully thought-through. Much of what such a sixth branch of the military would do in space is already being done under the aegis of the Air Force, and while boosting the budget for that work and pursuing it more aggressively might indeed pay strategic dividends, it would be duplicative and wasteful to carve out an entire new bureaucracy for that purpose. Yes, the new logo and uniforms would be nifty, but the case gets harder to make after that.
Trump’s plan to return to the moon is a very good idea, to a point. America’s stated long-term goal is to establish a human presence on Mars, and beta-testing the habitats, power, and other survival systems with crews on the moon, which is just three days’ travel away, is smarter than trying out the technology for the first time on Mars, which is a minimum of eight months distant. But the Administration’s plan to take an indirect route to the moon—relying on a sort of mini-space station as a staging area in near-lunar space—adds an expensive order of complexity that many critics dismiss as unnecessary.
In a very real sense, Trump, the self-styled unconventional, rule-breaking President, has been very conventional when it comes to space: Promise a lot, deliver a bit, take credit for anything that works. Give him props, though, for the shout-out to Aldrin during as high-profile an event as the State of the Union. One other rule when it comes to NASA and all things space: It’s Buzz’s solar system; we’re just living in it.
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