Having made only a few passing references to space during the first two months of his administration, Trump has finally given us a glimpse of what the future holds for NASA by signing the Transition Authorization Act. But did the ceremony that accompanied the signing reveal Trump's real priorities?

Yesterday, President Donald Trump signalled his intention to boldly go where America had been attempting to go for the past seven years, with the signing into law of the NASA Transition Authorization Act.

The act essentially allows NASA to continue doing what it has already been doing since the Authorization Act of 2010, but the signing of the act does give us a clearer idea of Trump’s intentions regarding space exploration.

Image courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls

In signing the act, Trump made all the right noises and delivered all the correct superlatives to the assorted press. “For almost six decades NASA’s work has inspired millions and millions of Americans to imagine distant worlds and a better future right here on Earth,” said Trump. “I’m delighted to sign this bill – it’s been a long time since a bill like this has been signed – reaffirming our national commitment to the core mission of NASA human space exploration, space science and technology.”

But alongside the usual platitudes, Trump called for NASA to continue working with the commercial sector, stressed that his commitment to NASA was about creating jobs and implored NASA to continue advancing deep space human exploration with the goal of “sending crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s”. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, also noted after the bill was signed that it is Trump’s intention to resurrect the National Space Council.

Commercial Space Travel

It’s clear from Trump’s statement that the private space industry will enjoy a greater role in the United States space policy in future, although exactly what that means isn’t abundantly clear. Trump did say however that some of the roles NASA has previously been relied on for would transition to the private sector.

“This bill will make sure that NASA’s most important and effective programs are sustained. It orders NASA to continue transitioning activities to the commercial sector where we’ve seen great progress,” said Trump. “It’s amazing what’s going on, so many people at so many companies are so into exactly what NASA stands for, so the commercial and the private sector will get to use these facilities and I hope they’re going to be paying us a lot of money. I think we’re going to make great progress.”

Trump’s statement also revealed an ambition to support NASA’s Commercial Crew Program — an agency initiative that encourages industry to provide human transportation services to and from low-Earth orbit. “It [the act] continues support for the Commercial Crew Programme, which will carry American astronauts into space from American soil once again. It’s been a long time,” said Trump.

It’s about Earth

For a statement on space, it was hard to ignore Trump’s attempts to highlight the act’s potential benefits for domestic affairs. Trump emphasised that the act was about job creation, and once the signing was over, Rep. John Culberson noted that President Trump will one day be known as the “father of the interplanetary highway system,” to which Trump replied “first we want to fix our highways.”

America’s space programme has been a blessing to our people and to the entire world. Almost half a century ago our brave astronauts first planted the American flag on the Moon

While Trump’s announcement goes some way to revealing the Trump administration plans in space it make take a more to convince us that Trump himself is totally behind the endeavour. Trump did though seem to appreciate that he could use NASA to fulfil his main campaign pledge to “make America great again”.

“America’s space programme has been a blessing to our people and to the entire world. Almost half a century ago our brave astronauts first planted the American flag on the Moon,” said Trump. “That was a big moment in our history. Now this nation is ready to be the first in space once again. Today, we’re taking the initial steps towards a bold and bright new future for American space flight.”

National Space Council

“In very short order, the president will be taking action to relaunch the National Space Council, and he’s asked me to chair that, as vice presidents have in the past,” said Pence. “We’re going to be bringing together the best and the brightest from NASA and also in the private sector.”

Trump’s idea to bring back the National Space Council was first floated in late 2016, but there has been some debate as to whether this is a good idea or not. Some commentators believe that a Space Council could be used to articulate the White House’s space plans and priorities, while others argue its implementation could add another level of bureaucracy for NASA to fight against.

“A White House National Space Council can be useful if the president wants one and is willing to back it up when other White House offices, like the Office of Management and Budget, balk at its recommendations. If not, then it is a waste of resources,” Marcia Smith, editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com told Space.com.

VR space holidays seek to take you to infinity and beyond

A VR app that allows you to take a vacation into space from the comfort of your own home has been launched on Kickstarter by Guerilla Science. The Intergalactic Travel Bureau app will let users explore locations from across the galaxy, from the Apollo landing sites on the Moon to the vast canyons of Mars’s Mariner Valley.

The app builds on the previous success of a Kickstarter-funded project in 2014 that saw Guerilla Science on a three-city tour to provide the experience of planning a holiday to space. Now, with just a smartphone and a simple VR viewer, they plan to give you the actual experience of that holiday.

“The Intergalactic Travel Bureau VR app lets you go on a space vacation from the comfort of our stylish virtual office,” the company said. “Get ready to tour the historic Apollo landing sites on the Moon, the vast canyons of Mars’s Mariner Valley, and the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Experience the joys of vacationing in space…without all of the hassle of actually going there.”

Images courtesy of Guerilla Science

The Intergalactic Travel Bureau builds off data provided by NASA, among others. Using 3D models of the terrain and texture imagery, the developers then merge this data together in order to create realistic and accurate landscapes. Once complete, each destination spot will have a custom guided tour for visitors.

Currently planned are experiences at the Mariner Valley, Europa and the Apollo sites. But the work going into creating these locations in a manner that is not only accurate but looks good is not inconsiderable. Once complete, however, the app will be free for use and could provide some truly unique experiences.

“It takes a lot of time and care to reconstruct these other worlds, especially to make them look good. We’re raising funds to finish our renderings, adding details to make them as beautiful as possible,” explained Guerilla Science.  “We need to finish designing our main office, finalize the sequences for our guided tours, add remaining signage, a soundtrack with narration, and test the apps before releasing on iOS and Android platforms.”

Probably most notably, the Intergalactic Travel Bureau is a gift to any teachers out there, particularly in the STEM fields. A lot of people find space interesting, but to actually be able to show them Mars in a way that is right in front of their eyes is a whole new level.

Though not mentioned, we can only hope that if support for the app grows, and more destinations will be added to provide further insight into our galaxy. Or, if you happen to have a spare $10,000 lying around, you could always just pledge and receive a custom VR space vacation destination from the developers.

The app has a funding goal of $25,000 and at the time of writing – just a day into the crowdfunding campaign – it has reached $1,726. Funding will close on the 31st of March and the project will only be funded if it reaches the full goal.