US President-elect Donald Trump is set to slash Nasa’s budget for monitoring climate change and instead set a goal of sending humans to the edge of the solar system by the end of the century, and possibly back to the moon.
Mr Trump, who has called climate change a “Chinese hoax”, is believed to want to focus the agency on far-reaching, big banner goals in deep space rather than “Earth-centric climate change spending”.
According to Bob Walker, who has advised Mr Trump on space policy, Nasa has been reduced to “a logistics agency concentrating on space station resupply and politically correct environmental monitoring”.
“You stretch your technology experts and create technologies that wouldn’t otherwise be needed. I think aspirational goals are a good thing. Fifty years ago it was the ability to go to the moon.”
Nasa’s climate change role in the firing line
This year Nasa’s Earth Science Division received $1.92 billion in funding, up nearly 30 per cent from the previous year.
Its funding has gone up 50 per cent under President Barack Obama. At the same time Mr Obama proposed cutting support for deep space exploration by $840 million next year.
The money for earth sciences goes to projects like the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, a constellation of eight satellites intended to monitor surface wind speed on the oceans.
Speaking hours after Mr Trump’s election win Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s science administrator, defended the work. He said: “Nasa’s work on Earth science is making a difference in people’s lives all around the world every day. Earth science helps save lives.”
But Republicans have complained the agency that sent men to the moon should not be spending billions of dollars on “predicting the weather”.
Will Trump send men back to the moon?
A man has not set foot on the moon since 1972 but there is a good chance a Trump presidency will lead to a return.
Under President George W. Bush’s Constellation programme a trip back was planned in the 2020s, but Mr Obama cancelled it.
However, much of the Constellation equipment will be available and Mr Trump is receiving advice from several figures who are keen to launch a new lunar mission as a stepping stone to Mars. There is even a possibility men could be back on the moon by the end of a second Trump term.
Mr Walker favours a moon mission. So does Newt Gingrich, a close Trump ally and space fanatic. Mr Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid was chaired by Mr Walker.
In that campaign Mr Gingrich proposed putting a human colony on the moon within eight years, and even suggested when there were 13,000 people there they could apply for statehood.
Charles Bolden, the Nasa Administrator, has always intended to step down by January and Mr Trump will have to appoint a new head of the space agency. Two of the leading contenders, James Bridenstine and Scott Pace, also support going back to the moon.
There are political reasons too. Russia has a plan to put 12 cosmonauts in a base on the lunar surface.
Mission to Mars and the search for alien life
Mr Obama backed Nasa’s goal of reaching Mars around 2035 and the agency has been constructing a massive rockect called the Space Launch System and a capsule called Orion.
The route to Mars was to involve stopping off on an asteroid but morphed into a plan to capture a small piece of an asteroid and drag it onto lunar orbit, doing tests there in preparation for the Mars trip. That could be axed.
Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set food on the moon, said he believed Mr Trump would be “certainly very good” for plans to get to Mars and also urged him to go via the moon, in partnership with other nations.
He said: “”It’s time for us to join international partners by helping them do what we did. Refueling of the landers on the surface of the moon is very important so we will know how to do that at Mars, and that will give us great savings. Mars is the objective and we have to reduce some of the cost.”
Mr Walker said in the long term search for extra-terrestrial life it would be a goal to get humans to Jupiter’s moon Europa amid speculation about subsurface oceans there.
“Europa is a destination you can’t go to by sending humans with chemical rockets. It’s too far,” he said. But he said the fundamental basis of a Trump civilian space programme would be “inspirational” and that would help to stimulate technological developments.
“Americans seem to know intuitively that the destiny of a free people lies in the stars,” he said. “Donald Trump fully agrees.”
Private buyer for the International Space Station
In order to free up Nasa to focus on deep space exploration Mr Trump’s space policy is expected to include handing over operations in low-Earth orbit, including that of the International Space Station, to private sector companies.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already flying cargo resupply missions to the station and has plans to deliver astronauts, as do others. Nasa is funding the station until 2024. If private investors took over it would allow the agency to redirect money to exploration.
Trump advisers also envisage the re-establishment of the National Space Council which operated under the presidency of George H.W Bush. It would be headed by Vice President Mike Pence who is said to be “enthusiastic” about the proposed role.
The aim would be to better co-ordinate the civilian, commercial and military wings of the US space industry. Mr Walker said that would avoid building “multiple vehicles with similar capabilities” and technological developments in one of the three areas could be “fully shared” with the others.