Trump Courts Swing Voters With Last-Minute Space Plan

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Photo-Illustration: Daily Intelligencer. Photos: Steve Bronstein/Getty Images (Astronaut); Sara D. Davis/Getty Images (Trump)

In a late bid for the single-issue astrophile vote, Donald Trump has unveiled a surprisingly detailed and ambitious agenda for American policy in outer space.

Trump’s plan, crafted by former GOP congressman and Science, Space, and Technology Committee chair Robert Walker, calls for NASA to shift its focus away from “politically correct environmental monitoring” and toward “human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century.”

“I will free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low Earth orbit activity,” Trump declared, while campaigning in Florida last week. “Big deal. Instead, we will refocus its mission on space exploration. Under a Trump administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars.”

As Mother Jones notes, Trump’s pivot toward the heavens seems to have been inspired by humiliation: Last month, both presidential campaigns filled out a questionnaire from Space News. Clinton provided characteristically detailed answers to all nine questions, while Trump, also characteristically, sputtered short, vaguely worded platitudes. By the end, the discrepancy between the Trump campaign’s expertise on space and that of its rival was … conspicuous.

After that unflattering “point, counterpoint” was published, Trump Tower called Walker, requesting a comprehensive space reform plan on the quick.

Walker detailed the basics of that plan in a pair of op-eds for Space News. Among its key planks:

- Establish a national space-policy council to coordinate space policy between different federal agencies. (The council would be chaired by the vice-president, which is to say, by a man who contests the theory of evolution.)

- Public-private partnerships to harness the innovative spirit (and, crucially, private capital) of companies like Orbital ATK and SpaceX.

- Get NASA to stop worrying about how we’ll have a sustainable Earth by the end of the century, and start figuring out how we’ll send astronauts to the moons of Jupiter by then: (“Today, it has been largely reduced to a logistics agency concentrating on space station resupply and politically correct environmental monitoring … Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.”)

- Eliminate America’s vulnerability to a devastating space attack by replacing our large satellites with “constellations of micro-satellites.”

While President Obama has set ambitious goals with regard to Mars exploration, Walker told Mother Jones that the president’s hope isn’t nearly audacious enough.

Obama, following other presidential moonshots, has set goals of visiting an asteroid by 2025 and reaching Mars sometime in the 2030s. Walker and Trump propose just one deadline: exploring the farthest reaches of the solar system by the end of the 21st century. Mars is too limited a target, Walker says, since existing chemical-fueled rockets (similar to those used for the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs) could get the job done with some investment. “If you’re looking at technology that looks for the solar system, you are then likely to move toward plasma rockets, toward nuclear-powered rockets, certainly toward solar sails,” he explains. “There are a variety of things that you can do, which allows you to apply power throughout the mission.”

While the emphasis on public-private partnerships and the irrelevance of climate change fit snugly into GOP orthodoxy, Walker’s op-eds also extol the economic benefits of government investment in scientific research — a sentiment you’re unlikely to hear from members of the House Freedom Caucus.

Anyhow, Trump’s new plan is sure to win him support from voters who believe we need more ambitious goals for space exploration, less ambitious ones for monitoring climate, and a man who believes in intelligent design overseeing that transition.