Trump Takes on the Universe: The 45th President’s Plans for the US Space Program

As Donald Trump takes office as President, there are several big questions to be asked about what direction his policies will take. As yet, we haven’t heard much about what the new administration plans for the US’ efforts in space. We explore what the Trump administration may mean for NASA

“We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.”

So said the freshly inaugurated President Donald Trump during his speech on Friday, sending a perhaps surprisingly pro-science, if somewhat vague, message to those listening. And while the categorisation of a new millennium is somewhat off, it’s interesting that Trump seems determined to push for advancements in space. Given the big goals NASA is in the midst of trying to accomplish, it is promising that there is at least an overtone of presidential support.

That support will be necessary given the ambition of programmes such as the Mars mission. NASA are currently building the necessary rocket in-house, but it is possible Trump’s administration, given their business-friendly nature, may instead choose to have NASA make use of SpaceX’s in-development heavy-lift rocket.

“The next president is inheriting a space program that has this nascent ambition to go to Mars but doesn’t have hardware actually flying yet,” Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society, told Space.com in November. “

So there’s a lot of opportunity for the next administration to say, ‘Should we continue these [programs]? What will the direction be? Do we want to commit to supporting these programs as is? Do we change them? Do we cancel them?’ … So it’s a big question mark.”

An Expansionist Outlook

There is a certain space race vibe to Trump’s approach to the future of the US in space; a combination of nationalism and a belief in industry that could see the administration funnel cash and support into NASA programmes. It is possible this may come about through private-public partnerships, such as with SpaceX, but either way should result in a more robust space programme.

Image courtesy of Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com. Featured image courtesy of JStone / Shutterstock.com

The fear, however, is that the efforts of NASA to explore space may be boosted at the expense of their programmes on our own planet. Given the incoming administration’s at times flat-out denial of climate change, there is a strong chance that NASA’s Earth Sciences Mission Directorate could have its $2bn funding stripped to be directed towards expanding space programmes.  

“NASA should be focused primarily on deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies,” Robert S Walker and Peter Navarro, both senior advisers to the Trump campaign, wrote in an opinion piece published in SpaceNews before the election.

“Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.”

As for the President himself, outside of his inaugural speech, his view is slightly less clear. He has previously expressed excitement for the idea of privatisation in the space industry and critiqued President Obama’s approach to NASA.

“It is very sad to see what @BarackObama has done with NASA. He has gutted the program and made us dependent on the Russians,” he tweeted in August 2012. but at the same time seems reluctant to commit to a huge investment in the space agency. When questioned on NASA’s budget, Trump said “our first priority is to restore a strong economic base to this country. Then, we can have a discussion about spending.”

Capitalising the Cosmos

A primary Trump policy is putting America first. That means American business and American workers fueling the American economy over any outsourcing or importation of foreign talent. Given that the foremost private space efforts are primarily American (Space X, Blue Origin), and Trump is notoriously business-first, it makes sense that the idea of private industry leading the way into the next generation of space exploration would be exciting to the new President.

Image courtesy of SpaceX.

During a town hall in New Hampshire, Trump said that he “likes that maybe even better” when discussing the prospect of a private space programme as opposed to a public one and though he couched it in wanting to first prioritise infrastructure, he did also call the idea of a manned mission to Mars “wonderful”. Given that privatising such efforts allows him to push off the responsibility, and certain costs, from the government, it also allows him to boast of a combined cost cut and American industry boost.

Perhaps most notably, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, made two trips to Trump Tower during the transition period. According to the Washington Post, it seems that Musk discussed how private-public partnerships could help prime NASA for manned missions to Mars. Having probably the most prominent private space entrepreneur meeting with Trump one-on-one certainly suggests that the announcement of a NASA/SpaceX partnership may be on the cards for the administration.  

Into the Unknown

There are still a lot of decisions to be made in the coming months as the new administration settles into its role, and there’s a strong chance that NASA won’t be at the top of the list of priorities.

It’s not exactly a new problem, given the problems on our own soil; it’s often hard to convince people that billions should be spent firing probes into space. However, it’s hard to argue that the world isn’t better off for having a robust and well-funded NASA, whether it be for its exploration programmes or any of its other diverse efforts.

It certainly seems that there is an enthusiasm for the idea of buoying American interests in space but it may be that this is done so more via the promotion of private companies than public agencies.

Those behind NASA’s programmes should certainly feel concerned as to where they will be headed under Trump, it seems likely that even if they gain support in some areas it will be at great cost in others.  

Gecko-inspired robotic gripper to clear up space junk

Researchers have developed a pioneering robotic gripper that uses gecko-inspired sticky pads to clear up space debris.

Developed at Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and detailed today in the journal Science Robotics, the gripper has been tested both on the ground and on the International Space Station, demonstrating that it can successfully operate in zero-gravity environments.

With around 500,000 pieces of man-made debris littering orbit, there is a growing need to successfully clear much of it so that humanity can safely increase its operations in low-Earth orbit. Each piece of space junk is whizzing around at up to 17,500 miles per hour, meaning a collision with a satellite, spacecraft or even astronaut would be extremely expensive and potentially very dangerous.

However, many conventional junk removal methods don’t work particularly well. Suction cups rely on creating a difference in air pressure, meaning they don’t work in a vacuum; magnets only work on a limited number of materials and debris harpoons risk missing and knocking the objects off in unpredictable directions.

Sticky solutions, then are preferred, however most tape-like solutions fail because the chemicals they rely on to make them sticky can’t cope with the massive temperature changes objects in space are subjected to. Which is where the gecko-inspired gripper comes in.

The robotic gripper being tested on NASA’s low-gravity aircraft the Weightless Wonder. Image, video  and featured image courtesy of Jiang et al., Sci. Robot. 2, eaan4545 (2017)

“What we’ve developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives,” said study senior author Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford. “It’s an outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls.”

Geckos are able to scale vertical surfaces because they have microscopic flaps that create weak intermolecular forces between the feet and the wall’s surface, allowing them to grip on. The researchers have simply replicated these flaps, albeit on a larger scale; while each flap on a gecko’s foot is around 200 nanometers long, on the robotic gripper it is only 40 micrometers across.

However, it works in the same way, allowing an object to be gripped in a zero-g environment without needing to apply force.

“If I came in and tried to push a pressure-sensitive adhesive onto a floating object, it would drift away,” said study co-author Dr Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Instead, I can touch the adhesive pads very gently to a floating object, squeeze the pads toward each other so that they’re locked and then I’m able to move the object around.”

A close-up of the prototype gripper. Image courtesy of Kurt Hickman/Stanford News Service

The gripper has already undergone extensive testing, including in JPL’s Robodome, which has a floor like a giant air hockey table that is designed to simulate a 2D zero-G environment.

“We had one robot chase the other, catch it and then pull it back toward where we wanted it to go,” said Hawkes. “I think that was definitely an eye-opener, to see how a relatively small patch of our adhesive could pull around a 300kg robot.”

Now it has been tested on the International Space Station, the next step is to test a version outside the space station, in the radiation-filled reality of space. Cutkosky also plans to commercialise the gecko-inspired adhesive here on Earth.

Human lifespan “could continue to increase far into the foreseeable future”

Scientists researching human lifespan have concluded that it has no detectable limit, and that with advances in technology and medicine it could continue to climb for the foreseeable future.

“We just don’t know what the age limit might be,” said study co-author Siegfried Hekimi, a biologist from McGill University.

“In fact, by extending trend lines, we can show that maximum and average lifespans could continue to increase far into the foreseeable future.”

The study, which is published today in the journal Nature, analysed the lifespan of the longest-surviving people from Japan, France, the UK and the US every year from 1968 to the present day.

The scientists found that there was no evidence that a limit on lifespan exists, and concluded that if it does, we certainly have not yet reached it or even identified what it could be.

The research flies in the face of previous studies that concluded that not only was there a limit of 115 years, but that we were beginning to reach it. However Hekemi and his colleague Bryan G Hughes do not believe this is the case, and are unable to even hazard a guess as to what such a limit could be.

“It’s hard to guess,” Hekimi said. “Three hundred years ago, many people lived only short lives.

“If we would have told them that one day most humans might live up to 100, they would have said we were crazy.”

Images courtesy of Jonathan Kos-Read

Average lifespans have jumped significantly over the past century. In 1920, Canadians had an average expectancy of 60 years, but by 1980 it had climbed to 76 years. Now it is 82 years, and is likely to climb further.

These jumps have been down to the revolution in medical science over the last hundred years, however advances in medical technologies could cause a significant further jump in our lifetimes.

In particular, work by organisations such as the SENS Research Foundation, led by noted gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, is focused on treating ageing as something that can be cured, and has seen growing support from the mainstream scientific community.

However, if such medical treatments do become available, they may only be available to those that can afford them, particularly in countries that do not have a single-payer healthcare system, such as the US. In these instances, there are fears that such treatments could divide humanity, with the rich gaining far longer lifespans than the poor.