Ever since 1950, space and its exploration has represented a frontier-land for Americans, the modern version of the race to the West with horse-drawn wagons that is celebrated in several cinematographic classics and that, at any rate, made the U.S. great.
It is also true though that there are many ways to take part in the exploration (or conquest, as they said in pre-politically correct times) of the solar system and beyond. The question is: What is president-elect Donald Trump going to do about U.S. space policy?
We can start out by saying that, at least according to the statements made in the latest months and a few unusual actual deeds, space will be better off than many other branches of science and technology. These include the fields [of study and policy] that revolve around global warming and green economy. Trump once condemned the former as a giant, well-orchestrated hoax fabricated to hinder American industry.
On the one hand, the future president has openly stated that space exploration has given so much to America and that Americans must be proud of it. Furthermore, he has said that a good space program can even encourage young people’s interest in STEM subjects. On the other hand, we must not forget that a large part of space activity involves observation of Earth. This means a hard time for those who work in the field of earth science and use dozens of satellites to study the seas, the oceans, the winds, the melting of the ice caps, climate, El Niño — the list can go on and on. [Observations of] all these realms have led scientists to say that, alas, we are more polluted than ever and our earth is becoming devastatingly warmer.
Early international commentaries have therefore bet on astronaut missions, and the development and commercialization of useful technologies and services, with the simultaneous weakening of Earth monitoring and observation. We will see if that is going to be the case, since the latter branch is tied to as many [public and private] interests as the others.
What is, instead, quite certain is that Trump will change the space policy as well as the direction NASA has taken during the Obama years. It may not be original, but it is what practically all American presidents have done. Starting with Eisenhower, who founded NASA in the 1950s as a reaction to the Soviet Sputnik, to JFK, who risked everything by promising the Moon in the 1960s, all the way to Obama, who simply canceled the Bush administration’s space policy and opened the space race to private entities. This was a brilliant and incredibly effective move, since now Trump’s own advisors state the need to give more space to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, as well as to other companies that were established since then, such as Jeff Bezos’ (Amazon’s CEO) Blue Origin.
After all, Americans have known for far longer than we Europeans that space economy, which is now a frequent subject of discussion in our own country as well, is in constant and progressive growth, and that an impulsive increase is probably imminent. Former Rep. Robert Walker is the space policy advisor for president-elect Donald Trump. During a public meeting on Oct. 26, he admitted to having drafted a nine-point document for the new American space policy. It will have to be “visionary, disruptive, coordinating and resilient.” That last word has clearly come into fashion overseas, although, just like in Italy, it is not always clear what it means in the specific case [of space].
According to Walker, space must be back under America’s leadership and must generate technology, security and jobs. That is why the dormant National Space Council will be resurrected. It will be led by the vice president of the U.S. in order to ensure coordination among private entities. Not only will man land on Mars, but by the end of the century, he is expected to have visited the whole solar system. This is a matter that has been heavily debated in the past as well, since it is not clear what good it would do to send an astronaut to cold and gaseous Saturn, though [the endeavor] will still bring about the development of technologies that were unthinkable thus far, just like during the race to the Moon. There would also be an increase in the development of small satellites and technologies, concerning hypersonic flight, especially for the military. After all, as we Europeans tend to forget, NASA must also develop research on aerial flight, if it can still be referred to that way.
Point four of Walker’s document contains a bitter surprise: Satellites for earth science and climate will be handed over to the powerful and important National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It is a great entity that is known for its great professionalism and efficiency. Despite that, there is no doubt that NASA knows its way around satellites better.