Trump aims for moon, pulls back on space station and telescopes

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The Canadarm 2 reaches out to grapple the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft and prepare it to be pulled into its port on the International Space Station (ISS) in this April 17, 2015 file photo. — AFP

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — The Trump administration wants NASA out of the International Space Station by 2025, and private businesses running the place instead.

Under President Donald Trump’s 2019 proposed budget released on Monday, US government funding for the space station would end by 2025. The government would set aside $150 million to encourage commercial development and use future savings to aim for the moon.

Many space experts and legislators are expressing concern. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who rocketed into orbit in 1986, said “turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space” makes no sense.

Retired NASA historian and Smithsonian curator Roger Launius notes that any such move will affect all the other countries involved in the space station; Russia is a major player, as is Europe, Japan and Canada.

NASA has spent close to $100 billion on the orbiting outpost since the 1990s. The first piece was launched in 1998, and the complex was essentially completed with the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011.

MIT astronautics professor Dava Newman, who was the deputy NASA chief under Barack Obama, called the space station “the cornerstone of space exploration today” but said the Trump administration’s proposal makes sense because it is doing long-term planning.

The president proposes shifting large chunks of money from the space station, satellites studying a warming Earth and a major space telescope toward a multi-year $10.4 billion exploration plan aimed at returning astronauts to the moon in about five or six years.

“We’re building capability for the eventual human exploration of deep space and the moon is a stepping stone,” NASA’s acting chief financial officer Andrew Hunter said in a Monday news conference.

The president’s budget proposal, including NASA’s portion, was obsolete even before it was made public, but it provides a view into the administration’s priorities. Congress earlier this month passed a spending package that set limits through the end of the next budget year.

The same budget proposal proposes to pull the plug on WFIRST, a space telescope mission that NASA said is “designed to settle essential questions in the areas of dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics.”

And for the second straight year, the Trump administration proposes killing five missions that study Earth, especially its climate and the effects of carbon dioxide. The president also plans to end education programs in the space agency.

Private businesses already have a hand in the space station project. The end of the shuttle program prompted NASA to turn over supply runs to the commercial sector. SpaceX and Orbital ATK have been making deliveries since 2012, and Sierra Nevada Corp. will begin making shipments with its crew-less mini shuttles in a few years.

SpaceX and Boeing, meanwhile, are developing crew capsules to fly astronauts to and from the space station within the next year. These commercial flights will represent the first astronaut launches from US soil since NASA’s shuttles stopped flying.

A complete transfer to the commercial sector is a different matter, however. — AP


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