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View from Washington: All aboard Trump 1?

Scepticism is inevitable but there are grounds for saying the President's new space policy looks to the stars.

The problem with Washington policy on manned space flight is that – beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) – nobody expects any results.

Since the final Apollo mission, 45 years ago this month, multiple administrations have flirted with a return to the moon or human exploration of Mars. President Trump’s is the latest, this week following Barack Obama’s and those of Bush 41 and Bush 43.

Progress throughout has been slow, even allowing for NASA’s recent work on the Space Launch System (SLS), its 21st Century answer to the Saturn V rocket, and the Orion crew vehicle.

But perhaps there is cause to take Trump’s Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD1) a little more seriously, to suspend our normal bias towards devil’s advocacy. It is noteworthy that it is not Trump but Vice-President Mike Pence who has run point on getting the policy in place within a mere six months of reestablishing the US National Space Council.

From talking shop to policy statement, that’s lightning-quick in Washington. So, let’s consider the optimistic view.

SPD1 does roll back two key objectives set by Obama. The first was to undertake a manned mission to a nearby asteroid by 2025. That was to have served as the prelude to the second objective - sending a human crew to orbit Mars and return safely by the mid-2030s.

However, while replacing the asteroid plan with the Moon as an objective and removing the loose timetable for a Martian mission, SPD1 introduces emphasis on “an innovative and sustainable programme of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system” (our italics).

At first glance, the phraseology contains plenty of wiggle room that tends to promote continued scepticism. But looked at in another way, the strategy could turn out to be shrewd, putting space exploration on a more affordable footing.

Trump is arguably the first US president who has been able to articulate a space policy at a time when there is a thriving and independent space private sector composed of more than NASA suppliers.

Only a few weeks ago, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, (September 29) told a space conference in Australia that his company has been working on its own update of the Saturn V, the reusable BFR (and yes, Doom fans, that does stand for ‘Big F**king Rocket’). It is also developing a vehicle capable of reaching Mars. Together, these led Musk to set the “aspirational” target of a cargo mission to the Red Planet in 2022, followed by a manned one in 2024.

Musk’s timing has been hit-and-miss. But at SpaceX and Tesla, he does have a track record for getting there eventually. And he’s not the only player. Aerospace giant Boeing is the lead contractor on the SLS, and has its own Starline vehicle programme. Meanwhile, US venture-capital investment in space start-ups is running at an annual rate of about $2bn and rising.

There is then the policy’s reference to an international aspect.

The Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme confirmed in spring that it is planning a manned lunar landing between 2025 and 2030. The Indian Space Research Organisation aims to build its space expertise to launch manned missions to the moon “after 2020” (for the record, most experts think quite a good time after).

These emerging superpowers are striving to reach and demonstrate technological parity with the US – and Trump doesn’t like in-his-face competition. But beyond the politics, China and India see their space efforts in terms of the potential for harvesting vital minerals and other materials from the moon, asteroids and elsewhere.

Among a clutch of American space-mining ventures arguing that the US must therefore stake its claim to this potential multibillion-dollar market, the best known is Planetary Resources. It is backed in part by Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google and film director James Cameron. There are some powerful voices involved. With big cheque books.

Meanwhile, the prospects for the US aligning its efforts with those of other nations – and as well as the European Space Agency you do have to think of Russia – are also stronger, given existing cooperation on, for example, the International Space Station.

So, a climate now exists that might justify manned space exploration beyond LEO economically and that has a sufficient breadth of public and private sector partners to share the cost. With NASA having put a $100 bn price tag on getting back to the moon, it is impossible to see how anything SPD1 proposes can be achieved with federal funding alone.

So maybe, just this once, the signals from the White House are more encouraging because they are practical and pragmatic.

A more solidly-based judgement will need to wait until early next year, however, when Trump submits his next formal budget request. If NASA fares well, it may be the time to start believing. More important, it will signal to the partners NASA is certain to need how far, in every sense, the agency and the administration are prepared to go.

In space, it will always be as much a case of ‘per pecunia ad astra’ as ‘ardua’.

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