President Donald Trump's 2018 federal budget blueprint deeply cuts the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and other science agencies. But it largely spares NASA.
Where Trump wants to reduce the EPA's funding by a third, effectively gutting the agency, he's proposing a mere $200-million reduction to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's current $19.3 billion budget. The cuts mostly target NASA programs monitoring climate change and the agency's educational outreach efforts.
Thanks to internal communications between NASA and Trump's space transition team Motherboard has obtained through a Freedom of Information request (FOIA) and is publishing for the first time publicly here, we have some clues as to why Trump seems determined to keep the space agency mostly intact. The administration seems to be very interested in NASA's moneymaking potential.
Specifically, Trump's team—which is made up of several space entrepreneurs, including Charles Miller of NextGen Space—has inquired about NASA's ability to develop technology for commercial use, as well as the agency's plan to survey the Moon for useful raw materials and evaluate the potential of their extractability (a.k.a. mining).
In the 100-plus pages of documents that Motherboard obtained—including emails, briefings, directories and budget spreadsheets—Trump's agency review team, or ART, asks only a handful of questions of NASA. One of them deals with the technology NASA develops, and whether anyone can profit from it.
"The ART has requested the following information," one briefing paper states. "Provide data and examples of how NASA does technology development (perhaps even in the form of products) when working with industry—for example, types of contracts/partnerships and IP [intellectual property] arrangements."
By way of an answer, NASA wrote: "As … research and technology efforts mature, appropriate technologies are transferred to industry and commercialized through multiple programs and approaches to benefit a wide range of users ensuring the nation realizes the full economic value and societal benefit of these innovations."
According to the documents, NASA assured Trump's team that the space agency is no enemy of for-profit space exploration. Indeed, NASA has been hoping to turn over many low-Earth-orbit functions to private industry for years now .
"NASA envisions a future in which low Earth orbit is largely the domain of commercial activity while NASA leads its international and commercial partners in the human exploration of deep space," the agency wrote in its response to the Trump teams' inquiry.
"NASA envisions a future in which low Earth orbit is largely the domain of commercial activity."
To that end, NASA stressed that is has been "working with industry to develop innovative cislunar [between Earth and the Moon] habitation concepts that leverage existing commercialization plans."
The commercialization of low-Earth orbit could include light manufacturing using potentially trillions of dollars-worth of raw materials mined from nearby asteroids or the Moon, including tantalum and other rare earth metals.
Based on NASA's presentation provided in response to the Trump transition team, the transition team asked for an update on NASA's efforts to survey the Moon for valuable minerals and gases using resource-prospector drones, especially around the Moon's hard-to-reach south pole. NASA is collaborating with Taiwan on a robotic prospecting rover that it hopes to begin testing in 2017. The agency also told the Trump transition team that extracting and returning a sample from the Moon's south pole to Earth is a "high scientific priority."
NASA believes the Moon's southern polar region could contain so-called "polar volatiles," including easy-to-mine water, hydrogen, and methane that could fuel and support future Moon-miners. In its response to the Trump team, the agency called the polar volatiles a "critical long-term resource" that could be used for future human missions.
However, any plans to extract valuable resources from the Moon for commercial purposes would seem to at least bump up against the 1967 Outer Space Treaty signed by the United States, Russia (then USSR), and 90 other countries, which states: "The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind."
Motherboard reached out to the White House to inquire if President Trump was interested in mining the Moon, but a spokesperson declined to comment for this article.
Amid all the back-and-forth on commercial tech and Moon resources, NASA tried—subtly, at times—to explain to the Trump team that its main mission isn't commercial, but scientific, according to the cache of internal communications. And a scientific mission has little to do with making money.
The agency explained that its Science Mission Directorate "works to answer fundamental questions about the earth, our solar system and the universe," such as "how did our solar system originate and change over time?" and "how did life originate, and are we alone?"
"Answering these questions will have transformative impacts on our scientific understanding and on our human culture," NASA wrote to the Trump team, even though such basic inquiries don't turn a profit.
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