Last Friday, the U.S. Air Force announced it would give a whopping $40.77 million to SpaceX, expanding on a contract originally signed in January 2016 between the Air Force and several space exploration companies.* The money is going toward the development and testing of the Raptor engine—the ones the company plans to use to send people to Mars one day. The new round of investment is a glimpse into one way the White House might bolster the commercial spaceflight industry without having to directly spend money on science. Doing it this way might also exacerbate the regulatory pitfalls often associated with military investments.
A quick summary for the unfamiliar: SpaceX’s long-term goal is to create sustainable, affordable interplanetary transportation that could help establish a human colony on Mars. The company’s Raptor engine design is a cornerstone of that plan because it is supposed to run on methane and liquid oxygen instead of kerosene. CEO Elon Musk believes that methane fuel can be generated on Mars itself, eliminating the need to expend power and space in dragging and storing fuel on Mars or other interstitial outposts between Earth and Mars.
What does any of this have to do with Donald Trump? Since the election, one of the few specific space policy visions Trump and his allies (including current NASA administrator nominee Jim Bridenstine) have espoused is to significantly boost the presence and activity of American spaceflight companies, and get the private sector to take over many of NASA’s current low Earth orbit operations.
The problem is that the private spaceflight industry is still in its infancy, and it relies heavily on NASA for investment in the form of contracts (like launches and spacecraft-part development) in order to help it grow. The problem for Trump is that even while he wants to go to Mars (or at least to the moon), his administration has also been extremely clear about its desire to gut federal spending in every avenue of the executive branch.
This is where the White House may have found a way to have its cake and eat it, too. Trump, like many Republican presidents before him, has advocated for greatly increasing the national defense budget—at rates unheard of since Ronald Reagan’s first year as president. Furthermore, the Department of Defense is notorious for burning money through a bloated bureaucracy, and rarely answering for it, no matter who is president. The military and defense arms of the federal government just don’t answer to the same oversight and budgetary scrutiny that other agencies do. If NASA had thrown $40 million into Raptor development, a good chunk of Congress might have raised their eyebrows, and a few members might have even voiced their displeasure. But with that money going to SpaceX as an Air Force contract, no one—least of all Republicans—is likely to complain.
This is not inherently a good or bad thing. SpaceX might be able to use that money to successfully test out a prototype of Raptor and put itself, and the country, one step closer to getting people to Mars. The main problem with this choice, besides being a little bit sneaky, is that this money just doesn’t run through the same regulatory oversight as other federal spending does. National defense spending isn’t audited nearly as much as other branches of government. Who’s going to ring the alarm if those Air Force investments into private space technologies go nowhere? Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to say it wants to put power into the free market by slashing the fat off the federal government when, in reality, the private sector continues to sustain itself on federal investment as much as it ever has.
If the administration is as serious about wanting to empower the commercial space industry as it says it is, it needs to acknowledge just how critical federal investment is to that goal—and it should make it happen through avenues the public can keep a more watchful eye on.
*Update, Oct. 25, 2017: This paragraph has been updated to clarify when the original contract was signed and who was involved. The headlines on this piece have also been updated to better reflect the article.