A push for privatization is inspiring a battle between aerospace contractors and the new breed of tech entrepreneurs.
The proposed strategy, whose potential for igniting a new industry appeals to Trump’s business background and job-creation pledges, is influencing the White House’s search for leaders to run the space agency. And it is setting off a struggle for supremacy between traditional aerospace contractors and the tech billionaires who have put big money into private space ventures.
"It is a big fight," said former Republican Rep. Robert Walker of Pennsylvania, who drafted the Trump campaign's space policy and remains involved in the deliberations. "There are billions of dollars at stake. It has come to a head now when it has become clear to the space community that the real innovative work is being done outside of NASA."
The early indications are that private rocket firms like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and their supporters have a clear upper hand in what Trump's transition advisers portrayed as a race between "Old Space" and "New Space," according to emails among key players inside the administration. Trump has met with Bezos and Musk, while tech investor Peter Thiel, a close confidant, has lobbied the president to look at using NASA to help grow the private space industry.
Charles Miller, a former NASA official who served on Trump's NASA transition team after running a commercial space cargo firm, is pushing for the White House to nominate a deputy administrator who foremost "shares the same goal/overall vision of transforming NASA by leveraging commercial space partnerships," according to a Jan. 23 communication. That deputy would run the space program’s day-to-day operations.
Trump has yet to name a NASA director, but the documents confirm that Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma and former Navy pilot who ran the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, is a top contender.
"Fingers crossed," Miller writes of Bridenstine’s candidacy, according to one email.
The White House and Miller did not respond to requests for comment.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another commercial space evangelist with close ties to Trump, is also pushing the White House to embark on a major effort to privatize U.S. space efforts.
"A good part of the Trump administration would like a lot more aggressive, risk-taking, competitive entrepreneurial approach to space," Gingrich said in an interview. "A smaller but still powerful faction represents Boeing and the expensive old contractors who have soaked up money with minimum results.
"No NASA program dominated by bureaucrats could take the risks, accept the failures and create a learning curve comparable to an entrepreneurial approach," he added. "Just think of the Wright brothers’ 500 failures in five summers at $1 per failure. Ask how long NASA would have taken and how much it would have cost."
The more ambitious administration vision could include new moon landings that "see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto 'property rights' for American on the Moon, by 2020 as well," according to a summary of an "agency action plan" that the transition drew up for NASA late last month.
Such missions would be selected through an "internal competition" between what the summary calls Old Space, or NASA's traditional contractors, and New Space characterized by SpaceX and Blue Origin.
But the summary also suggests a strong predilection toward New Space. "We have to be seen giving 'Old Space' a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial," it says.
Another thrust of the new space effort would be to privatize low-Earth orbit, where most satellites and the International Space Station operate — or a "seamless low-risk transition from government-owned and operated stations to privately-owned and operated stations."
"This may be the biggest and most public privatization effort America has ever conducted," it says.
Granting most of low-Earth orbit activities to the private sector — key exceptions would be made for military and intelligence satellites — is a major element of what Walker, who chaired the House Science Committee, has been pushing Trump to adopt.
Unlike deep space exploration, which under the proposed vision would remain a key element of the government's space mission, in low-Earth orbit "you have mature enough technologies — private space stations in orbit, a number of concepts for building constellations of satellites that would have earth-bound applications," said Walker, who says he now consults mostly for New Space clients.
But he said the potential for economic development there — from space tourism to a host of industrial purposes to include the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and new materials — cannot be fully tapped "as long as the investors think they might be competing with the government."
"Turn over low-Earth orbit to commercial interests," Walker advises. "NASA — your job is to go to deep space. Get back into the business of technology developments that move us more aggressively into the exploration role again," such as a mission to Mars. "You can’t do missions of that enormity with chemical rockets."
The proposals being considered by the new administration also call for a "space industrialization initiative" in which NASA, with its $19 billion annual budget, would be "refocused on the large-scale economic development of space," according to the summary.
The model for NASA's new role, it says, could be the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a federal agency established in 1915, at the dawn of aviation, to promote and institutionalize aeronautical research.
"NASA's new strategy will prioritize economic growth and the organic creation of new industries and private sector jobs, over 'exploration' and other esoteric activities," according to the summary of the NASA agency action plan. "Done correctly, this could create a trillion-dollar per year space economy, dominated by America."
But such an approach is likely to cause anxiety within NASA and in Congress.
"Clearly there is a very keen interest in bringing in commercial but there is still a lot of desire to maintain programmatic continuity," said Andy Aldrin, director of the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute at the Florida Institute of Technology. "At some point those two things may not be consistent. At the end of the day there is only so much money to go around."
At NASA itself, major components of the agency that are focused on human space flight, space science and aeronautics might see their budgets cut or redirected under the new administration. "The uncertainty is not good for the workforce," said Brendan Curry, vice president of Washington operations for the Space Foundation, an educational organization whose members include a wide variety of space firms.
"The sooner that we know whatever the plan is from the Trump administration then Congress can adjudicate on it and the space industry will move ahead," Curry said.
Indeed, the bigger fight over the soul of the space agency could play out on Capitol Hill. Convincing skeptical lawmakers that are worried about the loss of NASA contractor jobs in their districts could be difficult — not to mention finding the additional federal money that might be needed to partner with private space companies.
Lori Garver, who served as the deputy NASA administrator in the Obama administration, predicts major pushback from Congress despite the potentially significant economic benefits of an aggressive government role in the privatization of space.
"We had a new administration that wanted to go in that direction but we were slowed," she said in an interview. "We made a little bit of progress."
While there is a strong argument that privatization would bring new jobs, "they don't want to let it go because they can't ensure where the jobs will be," said Garver, now general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association.
A bitter foretaste of the potential space war was the feud between Space X and the United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing — over lucrative contracts to launch military satellites into orbit.
Powerful backers of Boeing, such as Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Dick Durbin of Illinois, faced off against SpaceX supporters like Arizona Sen. John McCain, and SpaceX ultimately won a court battle to elbow its way into the military market.
For Aldrin, whose father Buzz was the second human to walk on the moon, the government space effort is a crossroad. He believes that private investment in space will not only bring economic benefits but could help NASA reignite its human space program, which has stalled since the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011.
"We can leverage more investment in commercial markets to provide a better foundation for what NASA would like to do with human exploration," he said. "We have to understand what the relationship between those two things can be. Sound market economics can be a real strong foundation to launching a mission to Mars and human habitation to Mars."