This summer 12 new recruits will report to NASA Johnson Space Center to start a two-year boot camp for “astronaut candidates.” They will train in teamwork, spacewalking and spacecraft operations, as well as learning Russian—a skill they will need to communicate with cosmonauts on joint missions. Yet when and where they will eventually fly is still unclear. The lucky 12 beat out a record 18,300 applicants to become astronauts at a time when the job description is somewhat unspecified. Will they live and work on the International Space Station (ISS) as astronauts do today? Probably, although NASA has not said exactly how long it will continue to operate the station. The agency plans to run it until at least 2024, but could decide to extend its tenure until 2028.* Might they fly to new destinations, like Mars, or revisit the moon? It’s anyone’s guess.
The space agency is still waiting for Pres. Donald Trump to nominate a NASA administrator and signal not just what he wants the U.S. to do in space but also how much he cares one way or the other—which he can demonstrate by pushing (or not) for the funding necessary for any grand plans. In the meantime Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot is left to continue chasing former Pres. Barack Obama’s stated goal of sending humans to Mars, albeit without a firm timetable or a specific plan for getting there. “NASA right now is substantially adrift,” says Robert Zubrin, an engineer and president of The Mars Society, an organization that advocates for human exploration of the Red Planet. “The Trump administration has not appointed a new NASA administrator, so nobody’s in charge.” Indications of the chief executive’s attitude toward space are scant and conflicting. During the March 21 signing of the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, for example, Rep. John Culberson (R–Tex.) suggested Trump could make a name for himself as the “father of the interplanetary highway system.” The president admitted that sounded exciting but said, “First, we want to fix our highways.” On other occasions Trump has been more enthusiastic about space exploration. “The president mentioned in his speech to both houses of Congress that, ‘American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream,’” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz pointed out. “NASA is already working toward that goal.”
Some space watchers took it as a hopeful sign that Vice Pres. Mike Pence attended the announcement of the new astronaut class and intends to head the National Space Council, a board that will oversee the country’s civilian, military and commercial space activities. The council first formed in 1958 as the National Aeronautics and Space Council, and Pres. George H. W. Bush later reestablished it as the National Space Council in 1989. It disbanded in 1993 but Trump plans to reinstate it. “NASA’s under a major transition that will have repercussions for decades to come,” says Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society. “We have not seen this big of a transition since the end of the Apollo program going into the [space] shuttle. With the decisions they’re making now, there’s a lot of opportunity there to make smart policy and smart decisions and really think of how they want to leverage NASA. The space council could theoretically very much help with that.”
Among the decisions to be made are whether to carry on with the Obama administration’s goal of directly sending humans to Mars by the 2030s or to first fly astronauts back to the moon—a shorter journey with fewer technical challenges. “I suspect the moon will be the focus of near-term human space exploration activity with Mars in the farther distance,” says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University (GWU), who many expect to be named executive secretary of the newly reinstated council. One signal of a change in direction is the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal, which cuts all funding for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, a proposal to capture a nearby asteroid and drag it close to the moon for astronauts to visit. With that mission out, NASA recently announced plans for a “Deep Space Gateway,” a spaceport to be assembled in lunar orbit in the 2020s. Although the Gateway could serve as a staging ground to test technologies for a Mars mission, it could also indicate a renewed focus on moon exploration. “The Gateway is a means toward different destinations,” says John Logsdon, a space policy expert at GWU. “Until the policy gets changed NASA can’t say much about going back to the moon, but clearly having a place where one can dock spacecraft in lunar orbit is a way of sending spacecraft down to and back up from the moon.”
The Deep Space Gateway is the centerpiece of a set new plans NASA released at the end of March that outline the missions it has in store for the Space Launch System (SLS), its heavy-lift rocket in development, and the Orion spacecraft meant to carry astronauts on deep-space missions. NASA intends to fly Orion–SLS on their first test flight in 2018, and would then begin constructing the Gateway over a series of three launches in the early 2020s. This outpost would be smaller than the ISS and would host astronauts for visits but would not house them continuously as the ISS does. Although the plans finally fill in some missing details about how NASA intends to begin exploring beyond low Earth orbit, they have not yet received the administration’s endorsement, or perhaps even more significantly, congressional funding. “It’s adding clarity to NASA’s direction that they’ve been talking about on their journey to Mars,” Dreier says. “At the same time there’s no money behind it. Absent room in the budget, at the moment it’s just an intention.”
And not everyone agrees that the Deep Space Gateway is even a useful step toward NASA’s larger exploration goals. “Such a station is not necessary to return to the moon, and we do not need such a station to go to Mars,” Zubrin says, “this is a make-work project.” He sees the mission as a way to make use of the SLS and Orion, programs the previous administration tried to cancel but that Congress insisted NASA build anyway, largely to support jobs in states like Florida and Alabama.
Those who would like to see NASA move forward with ambitious deep-space missions say the time is now or never. “The longer they go when they’re not doing anything it’ll become more and more difficult,” says University of Central Florida space policy expert Roger Handberg. “For one thing you’ll stop getting good people entering at the lower levels, and the experience base at the upper levels will be gone. That kind of attrition over time saps the vitality out of the organization.” But to really get going NASA will need a show of support from the White House, an injection of funding from Congress and likely the cooperation of international partners. “My biggest disappointment with the Obama administration is that the White House and the president himself never reached out and asked other countries to work with us in planning future exploration,” Logsdon says. “Given the uncertain character of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, whether that means a unilateralist approach to space exploration or whether they will reach out to other countries to join us in what we’re planning is one of the big open questions.”
With so many unknowns, the new astronaut candidates are embarking on an uncertain future. They seem undaunted, though; after all, exploring a new frontier is what they signed up for. “I think for the future it’s maybe a little unclear,” new astronaut candidate Jonny Kim said during a June 7 news conference regarding destinations they might explore. “We’re just happy to be here, finish our candidate training and venture out into the deep unknown of space and the solar system.”
*Editor's Note (6/15/17): This sentence was added after posting to more precisely state NASA's planned operational tenure for the International Space Station.