Instead of a party platform, the Republicans have deferred to President Donald Trump, who has offered what is in effect a “Contract with America,” similar to the one Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE drew up in advance of the 1994 midterm elections. Among the promises Trump has made is the following:
“Launch Space Force, Establish permanent manned presence on the moon and send the first manned mission to Mars.”
The space promise, succinct and to the point, elicits a couple of quibbles.
First, a permanent moon base is not likely to happen in the second term. Nor will a mission to Mars. As his presidency draws to a close, the best that Trump can hope for is to preside over the first human moon landing since 1972, a remarkable feat regardless.
Also, the use of the adjective “manned” is likely to trigger outrage in certain quarters. America has been launching female astronauts since Sally Ride’s first flight in the early 1980s. Indeed, NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstinePeace between Israel and the UAE could spark joint Israeli-Arab space exploration 2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump’s NASA moon program Russia rejects joining NASA’s Artemis moon program in favor of China MORE always takes pains to state that the first human moon landing in over 40 years will consist of “the first woman and the next man.”
One can also point out that, like the space plank in the Democratic Party platform, Trump’s promise lacks certain specifics. However, the president has a record forged during his current term that fills in the blanks in great detail.
President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to visit Kenosha on Tuesday amid unrest Warner calls Intelligence chief’s decision to scale down congressional election security briefings ‘outrageous’ Katyusha rocket lands in Baghdad ‘Green Zone’: report MORE has executed the most far-reaching change in space policy since President Kennedy’s race to the moon. Deep space exploration programs that involve returning astronauts to the moon and dispatching crewed expeditions to Mars have been a perennial project for Republican presidents. However, Trump has not called for a retread of Bush Sr.’s Space Exploration Initiative or Bush Jr.’s Vision for Space Exploration, both of which were NASA-centric, using the model of the Apollo program.
Instead, Trump and his advisors have proposed a deep space exploration program that employs a combination of NASA and the commercial sector. The Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System are traditional NASA programs. However, lunar landers, which will carry astronauts to the lunar surface, are being solicited from the private sector in the same way that the Crew Dragon that recently flew astronauts to and from the International Space Station was. Moreover, both Trump executive orders and congressional legislation have encouraged the economic development of space, particularly mining the moon and the asteroids and space-based manufacturing.
Trump’s space agenda is more remarkable because he gave barely a hint of it during the campaign. Twice, when he was running for president, Trump was dismissive of sending humans to Mars. Now he can talk of little else.
The Space Force initiative came out of the blue as well. The idea of a separate space-faring military branch has been kicked around for years. Trump, in a remarkably short time, turned an obscure policy proposal into reality. While some critics engaged in a little eye rolling and mockery, the dependence of the world’s nations on space assets such as communications satellites and GPS argued for a separate service branch to defend those assets. Netflix may regard the idea as a joke to be used in episodic TV, but the men and women forming the new service and establishing both its mission and identity are not laughing.
Few if any people are likely to say to themselves, “I really can’t stand the Bad Orange Man and was going to vote for Biden, but I rather like the president’s space agenda, so I will vote to reelect him.” The Democrats have, quite cleverly, endorsed the president’s space agenda in their party platform, suggesting that it doesn’t matter who is president insofar as space is concerned.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. How far will a President Biden go to advance deep space exploration, commercial space development and the Space Force? We know how far Trump will go because we watched him do it. No one can be quite sure about Biden, especially as he is being heavily influenced by space opponents like Bernie Sanders.
Voting for Biden on the theory that he will continue Trump’s space agenda will be a leap of faith. We don’t know whether Biden would work to enhance America’s space power. In fact, one suspects that he won’t, if elected. Trump, on the other hand, will work relentlessly to make America a space superpower.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.