Donald Trump may not love science, but he certainly understands the physics of bold strokes and good publicity. Motives aside, his executive order reestablishing the National Space Council was a surprising, but welcome, sign in an administration stocked with climate deniers and neo-nativists.
It’s also heartening that Vice President Mike Pence, the council chair, kicked off the first meeting by restating a bold promise: to return to the moon and eventually land on Mars.
At its best, the council could lift up the nation’s space program, with all of its inherent promise of exploration and innovation. At its worst, the agency, which includes Cabinet secretaries, commercial interests, and national security officials, could add a layer of bureaucracy that politicizes NASA. Or, worse yet, militarizes it. That dark possibility seemed to emerge at last week’s meeting. Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, warned that the council must “ensure we achieve the dominance in space necessary to protect our people” and block adversaries who “could do us wrong.”
Past administrations knew that manned space exploration could fire the nation’s imagination — while adding rocket fuel to political agendas. In 1957, President Eisenhower saw opportunity when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, because it established an important concept — the freedom of orbital space. President Kennedy basked in the reflective shine of heroes like astronaut John Glenn and called for the nation’s first moon shot.
Although it wasn’t well-known at the time, Soviet and US officials discussed collaborating in space from the earliest days. A declassified memo from a post-Sputnik conference notes “some discussion concerning the Soviet request as to whether we would like to put instruments of ours aboard one of their satellites.”
As early as 1961, Kennedy met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and proposed that the two countries go to the moon together, according to NASA historian William Barry. In 1962, JFK wrote to Khrushchev proposing a number of joint space projects, including a possible manned flight to Mars.
Collaboration with Russia now seems out of the question. But space exploration should be an international project, sharing both the costs and the glory. If the Trump administration is serious about Pence’s goal, it should eschew a new space race, with all its militaristic overtones, and propose a global program instead. For instance, the United States could propose that China, the world’s second-largest economy, join in a program to land astronauts on Mars. A joint mission could galvanize diplomatic relations with the aggressive regime of President Xi Jinping and, not coincidentally, establish a united front against North Korea.
It would also promote scientific collaboration — not rivalry — for decades to come. Trump, enmeshed in a fresh Twitter war over Senator Bob Corker’s height, looks more diminished by the day. He only stands to benefit from looking skyward.