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Science & Technology

NASA Faces The Unknown In Preparing For Trump Administration


What will be President Trump's policy on space exploration? NASA, of course, is the federal agency that's charged with going boldly into the solar system. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce joins us here in the studios to talk about where President Trump might send NASA. Nell, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Do we know much about Trump space policy based on the campaign?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was not a huge focus of his campaign. We really don't know much about what he thinks at all, although one kid in New Hampshire did ask him what he thought. And here's what he had to say about NASA.


DONALD TRUMP: You know, in the old days, it was great. Right now we have bigger problems. You understand that. We've got to fix our potholes. You know, we don't have exactly a lot of money.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For the space community, that's not exactly encouraging, right? But then he said this.


TRUMP: I love NASA. I love what it represents. I love what it stands for. And I hope that someday in the not-too-distant future we can get that going. Space is terrific.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He noted that a lot of private companies have been getting involved in space. And he said that was great, too.

SIMON: And private companies were the push of the Obama administration, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. So when President Obama came into office, the space shuttles were scheduled to be retired. The plan under President Bush had been to build new rockets to put people back on the moon. President Obama had a blue-ribbon panel look at that. And he ended up axing the Bush plan, saying, no, we're not going back to the moon. And moreover, we're not building these rockets. Instead, we're going to rely on private companies to sort of offer taxi services to take astronauts up to the space station and back.

SIMON: Now, space programs operate on timetables that are laid out over years. So what can we fairly say is going to happen over the next few years in NASA during a Trump administration?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So one thing would be that those commercial sort of space taxis are coming to fruition. They're supposed to have their first test flights with humans onboard probably next year in 2018. Meanwhile, Congress wasn't so excited when President Obama killed NASA's rocket plan. And Congress went ahead and told NASA, hey, we want you to build a big rocket anyway.

And so NASA's been busy working on that. It's building what's going to be the most powerful rocket in the world. And it is supposed to have a test flight next year. So both of those things are scheduled. And they sort of represent this kind of tension between new startup space companies inspired by Silicon Valley versus the sort of older, more legacy aerospace companies that work for NASA, building these sort of big mega projects.

SIMON: What kind of decisions could the next president make that would affect NASA?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He could make some real decisions. He could say, forget about going to an asteroid. We are going to go back to the moon. We're going to put people on the lunar surface. He could double down on private space companies. He could try to get NASA to stop building its big, massive, new rocket. So new presidents really do have an opportunity to put their mark on NASA and sort of shift its direction.

SIMON: And we should remember that NASA does a lot of basic science, too. How might that be affected?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The issue there is climate-change research. NASA has a huge budget for Earth sciences - monitoring our own planet. It spends about $2 billion a year on that. And there's been some talk that a Trump administration could shift those activities to other federal agencies. And some people see that as an effort to undermine them.

SIMON: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, thanks very much for being with us.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.