President Donald Trump's proposed 2018 federal budget leaves most of NASA's funding intact, with the total budget coming in at $19.1 billion (slightly less than the $19.3 billion approved for 2017). Thanks to Motherboard's acquisition of communication between the Trump Administration and NASA, we may have a little more insight as to why the administration views NASA as a good investment.
According to documents, the Trump team asked for data and examples of NASA's "technology development" with the commercial industry and information on whether government-funded developments are disseminated through contracts/partnerships.
In short, they wanted to know how NASA helped fund and fuel private industries and how they contribute to money-making enterprises—case in point, the administration asked about NASA's plan to survey the Moon in order to locate potential raw materials and determine how they can best be extracted for mining purposes.
In response, NASA assured the administration that it continuously searches for appropriate public-private partnerships, expecting the technology that it develops to grow private commercial pursuits such as work in low-Earth orbit. Specifically, they say they are "working with industry to develop innovative cislunar [a region that is equidistant between Earth and the Moon] habitation concepts that leverage existing commercialization plans."
A New Era In Space Exploration
The commercialization of low-Earth orbit could mean a treasure trove of resources totaling up to potentially trillions of dollars. Rare and valuable resources, such as platinum-group metals, can be mined from nearby asteroids or the Moon over a sustainable period of time. That is, only if NASA has the chance to survey the Moon's "Polar volatiles," or regions that include minable water, hydrogen, and methane — substances that can supply long-term human missions in the future.
This apparent focus from the administration is notable, as Lunar and asteroid mining has received increased interest from the private sector over recent years, with companies such as Planetary Resources and NexGen Space (the president of which, Charles Miller, is part of Trump's team) advocating for the feasibility and profitability of such endeavors. While NASA isn't new to bolstering commercialized efforts in space, the space agency has subtly pointed out in Motherboard's 100 paged FOIA request that its mission isn't primarily commercial, but scientific.
"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," they wrote.
To this end, the benefits of more private operations in space include greater transparency of costs, low-cost execution of launches and exploration, greater access to different vantage points in low-Earth orbit, quick production, international collaboration, and an overall facilitation of NASA's over-arching goal of achieving human deep-space exploration.
While NASA is in it for the science, the administration might have other ideas. But will a stronger emphasis on profitability stifle innovation — or help it grow? We may get a clearer answer once the national budget is finalized and implemented.