Trump Gives SOTU Shoutouts to the Past and Present of Space, but Not the Future

Trump Gives SOTU Shoutouts to the Past and Present of Space, but Not the Future

In his State of the Union (SOTU) address tonight, President Trump gave shoutouts to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and upcoming commercial crew launches, but neglected his own plans to return humans to the lunar surface and someday send them to Mars.  Nor did he mention the Space Force, which he has loudly championed for the past year.

The hour-and-a-half speech did not linger on space topics, but getting any mention in a State of the Union address is considered a coup.  Unfortunately, there was no commitment to the future of space exploration, just a tribute to the past and a tip of the hat to something that hopefully will happen this year — the resumption of crew launches to the International Space Station from American soil.

 In 2019, we also celebrate 50 years since brave young pilots flew a quarter of a million miles through space to plant the American flag on the face of the moon.  Half a century later, we are joined by one of the Apollo 11 astronauts who planted that flag:  Buzz Aldrin.  This year, American astronauts will go back to space on American rockets. — President Donald Trump

Apollo 11 lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin was in the gallery as a guest of the President and First Lady and got enthusiastic applause.

On July 20, 1969, Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first humans to land on the Moon while Mike Collins orbited overhead.  Five more Apollo crews landed on the Moon, the last in December 1972.

Attempts to invigorate a new effort to return American crews to the lunar surface since then have failed, but Trump is trying again.  His Space Policy Directive-1, issued in December 2017, reinstated the goal of landing astronauts on the Moon, which President Barack Obama eschewed.

It is somewhat surprising that Trump did not use the occasion tonight to point to his own initiative with at least a phrase if not an entire sentence.  The omission may portend a constrained FY2020 budget request for NASA’s human spaceflight program.  Submission of the budget request to Congress has been delayed until March because of the 35-day partial government shutdown.  The outline of the request is now expected to be made public on March 11, with details to follow the next week.

His reference to launching American crews from American soil “this year” matches the current schedule posted on NASA’s commercial crew website, though whether the flights take place as planned remains to be seen.  SpaceX’s Demo-1 launch — the first test flight of its system, without a crew – reportedly has slipped to March 2.  In November, NASA announced January 7 as the target date, although NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine presciently cautioned that delays were likely. Boeing’s test flights also are planned for 2019, but are subject to their own delays, which are not unexpected in space programs.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the lack of a reference to the Space Force.  Trump began talking about creating a Space Force almost a year ago and in June explicitly directed DOD to create a sixth military department “separate but equal” to the others.  Vice President Mike Pence went further in August, calling for Congress to create it by 2020.  The concept has evolved since then and the official request to Congress will not be for a new military department, but an entity subordinate to the Air Force due to congressional concerns about creating a costly bureaucracy according to Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.  It may be the idea is losing its luster with the President, although it is difficult to read the tea leaves based only on an omission in a State of the Union address.

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