At this very moment, two American astronauts are floating in outer space, surveying a little blue planet where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are duking it out on the campaign trail. But even though they are blissfully distant from the barrage of election coverage that we earthbound folks encounter on a daily basis, the next U.S. president will determine whether they'll still have their jobs a year from now.
The next administration will have a big impact on the future of space exploration, both in terms of what government agencies like NASA are able to do, and the role of private space companies. Over the last five years, a thousand new space businesses have sprung up and over the next ten years there could be as many as 10,000. But this will only happen if lawmakers create policies that facilitate—rather than hinder—going to space. Space companies, venture capitalists, and lobbyists are all closely attuned to what is happening in Washington and how the upcoming election will influence the space industry. I spoke to several experts who offered some insight on the subject.
Over the course of the election, the candidates have talked about many aspects of their platform, but none of them have said much—if anything—about space. This isn't uncommon, according to Eric Stallmer, president of the lobbyist group Commercial Spaceflight Federation (or CSF), created by Elon Musk and other space entrepreneurs 10 years ago. In the 2008 race neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney addressed the space issue. "It's very sad, but it's nothing new for us," Stallmer says.
One reason that it is not a major talking point on the campaign trail is that it is not a particularly divisive issue, according to Stallmer. Americans generally feel positively about NASA and are eager to see the nation lead in terms of space exploration. "Space, unfortunately, is not gay marriage, it's not guns, it's not abortion," he says. "If you stack up all the issues that the candidates are talking about, space is probably 23rd on the radar screen."
That said, space lobbyists like him are working hard to educate the presidential candidates about the key issues. CSF has given each candidate a policy document urging them to prioritize America's leadership over the space industry should they be elected. It points out, for instance, that "NASA’s funding has fallen to historically low levels (adjusted for inflation) below where it was during the mid-1990s, squeezing the agency’s ability to develop new missions for human exploration, astronomy, planetary science, Earth science, solar science, technology development, and aeronautics research."
Stallmer says that Hillary Clinton's campaign has advisors with knowledge of the space sector, but to the best of his knowledge, Donald Trump's team does not. "They haven't gravitated to us just yet," he says. If space were to come up in the next few months, he says it would most likely happen when the candidates campaign in Florida, Colorado, California, or Texas, where there are large numbers of people employed in space businesses. (Neither campaign responded to my request for commentary.)
The real work, though, begins after the election. Leaders of the commercial space sector need to convince the new president that it is in the interest of the American people to have a thriving space industry. "When Obama came in, he didn't have a lot of interest in space either," says Chad Anderson, the managing director of the space-focused VC fund, Space Angels Network. "There's a learning curve when a new administration comes in."
It took many briefings with space industry leaders for him to come around, and when he did, he became a big advocate. During his administration, companies like Blue Origin, Space X, and Virgin Galactic have been able to grow and thrive. Companies like these have created many jobs: There is now a "space coast" in Florida and there are many space startups in Silicon Valley that are creating a thriving ecosystem. "It's a full on market," Anderson says. "Satellites and launches generate $330 billion a year."
Businesses, for their part, need to demonstrate that they are providing a valuable service. Take, for example, DigitalGlobe, a company that produces high resolution digital imagery used widely in mapping software and in U.S. federal agencies. Founder and CTO Walter Scott remembers the skepticism he experienced from Washington when he created the company in 1992. "This was the end of the Cold War and people were not sure whether having the widespread availability of satellite imagery was going to be good, because up until then, satellite imagery had been used for defense and intelligence purposes," he says.
However, over the decades, Scott has been working with the government to craft policies that allow his company to operate. Part of this has been about showing how valuable satellite imagery can be for society—and not just in the sense of using Google maps to help you get to your next meeting. "It's being used for a whole variety of social goods, whether it's mapping remote villages for delivering polio vaccines, fighting forest fires in Canada, or freeing slaves off the coast of Papua New Guinea," Scott says.
President Obama has facilitated the growth of companies like DigitalGlobe by ensuring that regulation does not hinder growth and innovation. Last year, he signed a bill that gave private spaceflight companies a "learning period" where they would be exempt from government oversight for the next 8 years. This would mean that the Federal Aviation Administration would not regulate these companies as closely as the rest of the aerospace industry. Laws like this allow space companies to experiment with new technologies and innovate quickly.
When the next president enters the Oval Office, space industry leaders will be working hard to ensure similar laws are in place. "We're constantly talking to the government about how to streamline the process, so that the government is not a barrier but an encourager of the commercial marketplace and especially in the development of this industry," says Stallmer says.
In order for the private space industry to thrive, there also needs to be a strong public space program, that is to say, NASA. Space companies rely on NASA's well-funded cutting-edge research and they often send satellites up in their spacecraft. President George W. Bush decommissioned NASA's program that ferried astronauts to and from the International Space Station. "The U.S. went from being the dominant force in launch to having a zero percent market share," Anderson says. These days, the U.S. needs to pay Russia to send it's astronauts into space. This cost more than $2 billion between 2012 and 2017. The space industry is working hard to encourage the government to fund these kinds of programs.
Obama has been keen to foster collaborations between companies and the government, which ultimately benefit both parties. Space companies have been working to drive down the cost of launching vehicles, so NASA has been hitching rides with Boeing and SpaceX. "He's encouraged the greater use of public private partnerships," Anderson says. "Under his watch the commercial crew and commercial cargo programs evolved. It's helping NASA save a ton of money because these guys can do it much cheaper than hitching a ride with the Russians." According to Anderson, SpaceX can send seven people into space on a rocket for between $60 and $100 million; the Russian government charges $88 million a seat.
Many in the space sector have been generally pleased with Obama's policies on space. In his 2017 budget proposal, which was recently approved, he set aside $19.5 billion for NASA. "That was a good top line figure," Anderson says. "There's a lot of momentum and a lot of good things happening. I'm mostly concerned with a change in administration thwarting that process."
There are several big issues that will unfold during the next administration. For instance, the Obama Administration has ensured that the International Space Station will continue till 2024, but it will be up to the next administration to do strategic planning about the future of this orbiting laboratory. The next president will have to decide whether it should be used for commercial purposes and which other countries we should partner with on the project.
Then there's the issue of Mars. While Obama has been strongly in favor of NASA's plan to send humans to the Red Planet by the 2030s, Congress has been talking about delaying this mission and redirecting it's funding to lunar missions. If Martian exploration is to continue in the near future, the next president will have to take a leadership role in making things happen. "This is going to be fully on the plate of the next administration," Stallmer says.
Of course, there's also a host of smaller issues that the commercial space sector tackling with the government on a daily basis. Lawyers are working on the question of property ownership rights in space, trying to define who owns the materials that are mined on other planets or astroids. This is not an immediate issue, but companies may be more motivated to develop mining technologies if they know they will ultimately own the resources.
There's also a debate underway about whether the government should lift its 20-year ban on converting ballistic missiles into launch vehicles. The CSF is working hard to make sure this does not happen, because many small companies have invested private sector money to develop their own launch systems. "A lot of our membership has a great deal of concern that if the government floods the market with these cheap former ballistic missiles, it could really undermine the commercial marketplace," Stallmer says. "If you're an investor, why would you invest if you know you have to compete against the government?"
A president that is excited about the space sector can help to create legislation that is favorable to commercial space companies. Besides shaping explicit policies, the new administration can determine how these laws are applied. "What we would like to see is a shift from what is a de facto policy of, 'No, unless you can prove no harm" to a policy of, "Yes, unless there is a compelling reason to believe there would be harm,'" says DigitalGlobe's Scott. "It's a difference in mindset."
Space industry leaders are working hard to plant seeds in the minds of the current presidential candidates and are readying themselves to make a strong case for commercial space when the new administration comes in. "That's always the case in Washington," Stallmer says. "You have to reset and get your leather shoes out there. As hard as it is to see now, I do have faith that whoever ends up in the White House will embrace what we are doing in the space industry and see that it really is a jewel of American industry."