It’s been bad news for the funding of many federal agencies since Donald Trump took office, but one of the bright spots in the gray new Washington cloud settled overhead is that NASA’s budget escaped comparably intact, suffering “only” cuts to climate change research. As David Axe reported for Motherboard, “Where Trump wants to reduce the EPA’s funding by a third, effectively gutting the agency, he's proposing a mere $200 million reduction to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's current $19.3 billion budget.”
A new report points that the Trump administration is leaving NASA intact because it believes it has significant potential to make money.
“Thanks to internal communications between NASA and Trump’s space transition team... we have some clues as to why Trump seems determined to keep the space agency mostly intact,” writes Axe. “The administration seems to be very interested in NASA's moneymaking potential.”
As far as the Trump Administration is concerned, the money-making value of NASA seems to be tied up in two prominent segments of research and activity: tech development and the moon.
It appears NASA saved their funding by effectively convincing the Trump administration that it was on their side by suggesting that the efforts eventually make it to market, for other sectors to benefit from their work. In a transition memo (scroll down), NASA explains that their funding is split between in-house research efforts and contracting, which private innovation proponents are likely to be happy to hear. NASA further says that once technology reaches “maturity,” it is often shared with the public. From the memo:
“NASA pursues technology development to support both the national innovation system (industry, academia, other government agencies, and the general public) and specific NASA mission requirements… As STMD research and technology (R&T) efforts mature, appropriate technologies are transferred to industry and commercialized through multiple programs and approaches to benefit a wide range of users ensuring the nation realizes the full economic value and societal benefit of these innovations.”
NASA further clarified that they spread this research "to the broader aerospace community, while protecting our industry partners’ proprietary interests." In other words, they seek to release everything they can to the public that won’t harm a private sector partner’s proprietary interests.
And while NASA cautions the administration that their primary purpose is academic, they do hint that in the pursuit of the academics, there’s something financial to be gained.
Significant portions of the document were dedicated to outlining how and where research was progressing on finding resources on the that would be collectable and, potentially, sustain human life either for the purpose of a mining outpost or maybe colonization one day.
But whether any of that collection could one day make money is an international law question. “To extract valuable resources from the Moon for commercial purposes would seem to at least bump up against the 1967 Outer Space Treaty signed by the United States, Russia (then USSR), and 90 other countries,” Motherboard explains. The document states: "The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind."
So perhaps those moon mining dreams are dead in the water, as the president would never want to violate international law for profit.