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What do the stars hold for the Trump administration? Here’s how NASA’s mission could change

April 12, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Some big changes could be in store for American space exploration under President Trump and the Republican Congress. Sending more humans to the moon, as well as a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa seem to be part of a plan that extends years beyond the Trump administration. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien explores how NASA’s mission could be reshaped.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: How will NASA’s mission change under President Trump and a Republican Congress that helps decide where money should go?

Some big changes could be in store for space exploration and the missions set into place now that could stretch well beyond the Trump era.

Miles O’Brien has the story for our weekly segment about the Leading Edge of science and technology.

MILES O’BRIEN: The balcony at Congressman John Culberson’s office on Capitol Hill offers a sweeping panorama of Washington, but the Republican from Houston is usually looking higher.

REP. JOHN CULBERSON, R-Texas: There’s Mercury. Mars is going to appear right here. We go this way, there’s Orion. Sirius is going to appear right here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Culberson has more than a hobby-level interest in space. He chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees NASA. In his ninth term, he is riding high, as the Trump administration embraces his strategy for exploring space.

REP. JOHN CULBERSON: NASA has been underfunded for far too long. They have been short-sticked by previous administrations, this past administration. And I’m very excited and pleased to see President Trump recommend enough funding for NASA as a whole.

MILES O’BRIEN: President Trump apparently sees NASA as a priority. He’s made passing references to space in his inaugural address.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space.

MILES O’BRIEN: And in his speech to Congress.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.

MILES O’BRIEN: The Trump administration is proposing only a 1 percent reduction in NASA’s $19 billion annual budget. Hardest-hit programs are science and education. But at a time when the federal scientific enterprise is facing deep, unprecedented cuts, the space agency may have dodged a missile.

Mr. Trump’s space advisers include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Congressman Bob Walker, who served as chairman of the subcommittee that oversees NASA.

ROBERT WALKER, Trump Space Adviser: Newt has had several conversations with Trump and with Vice President Pence. And both of them are space cadets. And there are other fairly high-ranking people in the White House who are also space cadets.

MILES O’BRIEN: In this case, space cadet is a compliment. Walker says the White House would like NASA to get out of low Earth orbit, leaving that realm to private enterprise.

Beyond that, the space agency takes a role that increases with the distance from Earth. The administration is also focused on humans returning to the moon.

ROBERT WALKER: I think the moon is an important step on the way to Mars. I think you have to have some experience in a very hostile environment where you develop some of the technologies that you need to exist on Mars before you actually head to Mars.

MILES O’BRIEN: For Congressman Culberson, that is well and good, but he believes the most important green-lit mission is aimed at this object, the icy moon of Jupiter, Europa.

The Europa Clipper was approved by the Obama administration and Congress in 2015, more than 10 years after Culberson began obsessively pushing NASA to go there. Europa has always fascinated him. Beneath the ice is a salty ocean. How much? He answers the question with a poster on foam core he keeps in his office.

REP. JOHN CULBERSON: This is all the water on Earth, both fresh and salt, and all the water on Europa. This is a free-floating ice shell, and there’s two to three times more water on Europa than there is on Earth.

MILES O’BRIEN: Scientists find this tantalizing, because, no matter how far down they explore in our oceans, they find all kinds of living creatures.

KEVIN PETER HAND, Astrobiologist, NASA: And with that much water out there today in our solar system, that begs the question, could there be life within that ocean?

MILES O’BRIEN: Jet propulsion laboratory astrobiologist Kevin Hand is in line to be the project scientist for a NASA mission to land on Europa by about 2030.

That lander would be preceded by an orbiter slated for launch in 2022. The orbiter is designed to capture stunning imagery and detailed science about the salts and any organic compounds on the surface, and use radar to look beneath at the boundary between the ice and the ocean. All of this will help them determine where to land.

KEVIN PETER HAND: We’d love to melt through the ice and reach the ocean directly, but, based on the evidence we have, Europa’s ice shell does serve as a relatively good window into the ocean below.

We could, perhaps by sampling the surface, also be sampling ocean material, and thereby also be potentially grabbing a sample that could have some little Europa organisms.

MILES O’BRIEN: But, for many years, NASA didn’t seem interested in Europan krill.

The NASA administrator under George W. Bush, Mike Griffin, thwarted Culberson’s first attempt to land on Europa. It was a mission called the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. And it was canceled in 2006 to pay for completion of the International Space Station.

REP. JOHN CULBERSON: When Mike Griffin canceled the Europa mission last decade, it scarred me so badly, I swore I wouldn’t let the bureaucrats cancel this mission again. So, today, the Europa orbiter and lander is the only mission it is still illegal for NASA not to fly.

MILES O’BRIEN: You heard right. Culberson made the Europa orbiter and lander missions the law of the land in 2015.

But exploring Europa is challenging and expensive. NASA managers complained their plate was already too full with the space station and an extensive campaign to explore Mars. And the focus on Mars is sustained by the goal of eventually sending humans to the surface. Europa is only a destination for robots, and hearty ones at that. Lethal radiation levels ensure no human can ever visit.

It makes the mission less attractive to the powerful astronaut side of the House at NASA. But in this war of the worlds, Mars has met its match.

ROBERT WALKER: The fact that people are talking about Europa right now is a result of Chairman Culberson’s interest in it.

And the fact is that he has caused NASA to say, if that’s what Chairman Culberson wants, that’s what Chairman Culberson gets.

(LAUGHTER)

MILES O’BRIEN: Culberson isn’t stopping there. He has written a 50-year plan for NASA that includes a spacecraft that can go 10 percent the speed of light for humanity’s first interstellar mission to the nearest Earth-like star. The launch date is 2069, 100 years after the first moon landing.

REP. JOHN CULBERSON: I have always wanted to restore NASA to the glory days of Apollo, as you and I remember as kids. I want to see NASA go above and beyond the glory days of Apollo.

MILES O’BRIEN: Culberson is all about making NASA great again. But watch what happened in the Oval Office after the president signed the authorization bill for space agency’s current budget.

REP. JOHN CULBERSON: Mr. President, if I may, just as Americans remember that President Eisenhower was the father of the interstate highway system, with your bill signing today and your vision and leadership, future generations will remember that President Donald Trump was the father of the interplanetary highway system.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, that sounds exciting.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: First, we want to fix our highways. We’re going to fix our highways.

(APPLAUSE)

MILES O’BRIEN: Europa and Mars may beckon, but, for politicians, it’s never wise to ignore the potholes, even when surrounded by people who care more about black holes.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Miles O’Brien in Washington.

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