In a speech at Kennedy Space Center this past week, Vice President Mike Pence promised a return to the glory days of the U.S. space program. Quoting President Trump, the veep vowed that America would lead in exploration and discovery “like we’ve never led before.”
Considering the program’s storied history, those are extravagant expectations. But as President John F. Kennedy proved in 1961 when he challenged the U.S. to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade, ambitious goals can spur extraordinary accomplishments.
Making the space program great again, however, will take more than high hopes. It will take committed leadership from the Trump administration, a clear mission and sustained funding to achieve it. And while a revitalized program is in the national interest for many reasons, no state has more to gain than Florida.
Trump got off to a good start last month when he signed an order reviving the National Space Council. The council — an interagency group to coordinate civil, military and commercial space programs — was created under President Dwight Eisenhower. It oversaw the successful effort to send U.S. astronauts to the moon. It was disbanded under President Richard Nixon, revived under President George H.W. Bush, and eliminated a second time under President Bill Clinton.
The heavyweights who will make up the Space Council under Trump are a positive sign that space will be a priority in his administration. Pence will chair the group, and members will include five Cabinet secretaries, the national security adviser, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence, among others. Ideally, the group will keep multiple agencies in sync, and not turn into a new layer of bureaucracy on space policy.
The administrator of NASA also will be a member of the council, but Trump has yet to name a new leader for the space agency. We’re hopeful the delay is because the White House is taking its time to find a top-flight administrator, and not because it considers the post an afterthought.
Pence’s promise that the council would strengthen the partnership between government agencies and the commercial space industry is encouraging. Private rocketeers, including SpaceX and Boeing, already are taking the lead on resuming launches of astronauts from the Space Coast. Those companies will make the U.S. space program more flexible, more innovative and more cost-effective.
But even a program with a larger role for more-efficient private players will still need enough federal resources to succeed. Stingy funding for NASA from Congress in recent years has delayed the timetable for launching U.S. astronauts on private rockets.
Trump’s first budget proposal actually calls for a 2 percent cut next year in NASA’s $19.5 billion budget. If the space program is to tackle more-ambitious goals, it will need more dollars. NASA’s current slice of the federal budget, less than half a percent, is a fraction of its 4.4 percent peak during the 1960s. A return to those funding levels is neither responsible nor realistic, but the agency will have a harder time fulfilling any long-term plans if it runs the risk of cuts year after year.
In another contrast to the Apollo era, America’s leadership in space this century has been hampered by mission drift. President George W. Bush decided in 2004 to retire space shuttles by the end of the decade so NASA could begin focusing on a return to the moon. President Barack Obama canceled the moon program and set the space agency on a new course for a rendezvous with an asteroid in the 2020s and flights to Mars in the 2030s. President Trump dropped the asteroid plan but maintained funding to continue developing a NASA rocket and capsule designed to carry astronauts into deep space.
America’s space program needs a mission that lasts beyond a single president’s term. There’s not enough time and money for a reboot every four or eight years.
Last week at KSC Pence declared, “Here from this bridge to space, our nation will return to the moon and we will put American boots on the face of Mars.” The vice president did not offer a timeline or other details. Here’s hoping the Space Council will begin filling in those blanks soon.
— The Orlando Sentinel, July 7