The US election isn’t technically over – and it sometimes feels as if it might never be over – but it has at least produced a winner. Barring some extraordinary upset, Joe Biden will be the next President and the surreal reign of Donald Trump is drawing to a close.
Judging by Twitter, there are plenty who hope that this marks a decisive end to a bizarre but mercifully short interlude in American politics. But this seems unlikely. Despite being an extraordinarily weak candidate in so many ways, Trump not only avoided a landslide defeat but achieved some unlikely milestones, particularly the highest non-white GOP vote share since the 1960s.
Rather than simply junking ‘Trumpism’ wholesale, therefore, Republican strategists will have to sift over the last four years and try to work out which elements of it are worth nurturing. His focus on space should be one of them.
This president has focused on space more than any since the Cold War. The best-known of his policies is undoubtedly the slightly cartoonish (and perhaps ill-judged) Space Force, but the MIT Technology Review highlights a raft of ways in which Trump has accelerated and expanded upon the space programme he inherited. These include increasing the role of private companies in a broad range of NASA operations and reviving the National Space Council.
Most ambitiously of all, he shifted the focus of future manned missions from Mars to the Moon and brought forward the target date from the 2030s to the 2020s – the latter apparently in the hope of providing a defining moment for his presidency. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2017:
“The common thread among many of the policy options, transition and industry officials said, is a focus on projects able to attract widespread voter support that realistically can be completed during Mr. Trump’s current four-year presidential term.”
That story is topped by a photograph of Trump with Elon Musk, another larger-than-life character with a big interest in the space race. This month his company, SpaceX, made headlines with the news that it intends to establish its own legal regime on Mars. This emerged in the T&Cs of its Starlink satellite network, although last month David Anderman, SpaceX’s general counsel, revealed in an interview that he is “actually working on a constitution for Mars”.
Musk is no more single-handedly responsible for SpaceX’s triumphs than would Trump have been for a return to the Moon. Senior colleagues (especially Gwynne Shotwell, the President and Chief Operating Officer) play a crucial role. But it is nonetheless telling that the company at the forefront of today’s scramble for the stars is one shaped by a big personality like his.
Likewise, it is not surprising that Trump – a figure who could have stepped straight out of the final days of the Roman Republic – placed such an emphasis on a return to human space exploration. It’s the sort of prestige project that appeals to people looking for a place in the history books, whether because they’re visionaries or egotists (or both). Bureaucracies do not weep when there are no new worlds to conquer.
The next Republican presidential candidate is unlikely to be such a narcissist as Trump (indeed, it would be difficult even to find such a candidate). But they ought to hold on to the ambition of his approach to space.
Firstly, because a lot of this stuff is going to matter sooner rather than later. As noted in the MIT piece, a lot of what Trump did merely brought forward developments which were likely to happen anyway in the next decade or two. It is surely better to be getting on top of the issues now, and helping to capitalise on the advantages the US enjoys by being home to companies such as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
With the post-Cold War order slowly coming apart and both Russia and China being spacefaring nations, a new space race looks more like a question of when than if. Whilst there’s no pressing case for national governments to do anything so dramatic as colonise Mars (which Musk intends to do with private capital), a base on the Moon is the next obvious prestige prize after Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, and Apollo 11.
And as the major spacefaring nations develop the necessary infrastructure, the relative costs of other space-based projects will diminish and a broader range of options may become politically feasible, especially if more private companies are prepared to take the lead in the hunt for minerals or energy.
A proper space race doesn’t require the contestants to know that great prizes await – merely to fear that they might, and their opponents could seize the first-mover advantage. For the moment the Outer Space Treaty forbids terrestrial nations from planting their flag out in the night. But given the limited effectiveness of international law in curbing the 21st Century’s rising powers on Earth, it seems naive to suppose it will be more effective off it.
But, important as the commercial and defence dimensions of space are, there is also the simple fact that there are probably few things that can quite capture the imagination the way space exploration does. For all his faults, Trump has an instinct for what hooks the public and his judgement about the political advantages of presiding over the return to the Moon is probably spot on.
A revivified space programme has the potential to be, if not an inspiring and unifying plank of the Republican platform, at least a far more enticing offer to those voters hungering after American greatness than any wall could ever be. And if the GOP manage to take back the White House in 2024, the timetable could be entirely realistic.
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