The battle over how humans head for the stars has taken a new turn.
Peter Thiel is hard at work on Donald Trump’s transition to the presidency—vetting nominees, corralling Silicon Valley honchos, and, now, making sure there is room for private enterprise at the world’s premiere space agency.
The controversial tech investor, who this year made a winning bet on Trump that outraged many in the tech sector, and who gained notoriety for funding the libel lawsuit that shut down Gawker Media, has pushed the president-elect to include more people sympathetic to the commercial space industry on the team who will install his staff and policies at NASA, the Wall Street Journal first reported.
The move could prove vital in a battle over NASA’s priorities and multi-billion-dollar budget.
NASA and its masters in Congress currently stand at a transition point, balancing two kinds of work: expensive and ambitious exploration missions done as cost-plus contracts by traditional firms like Boeing and Lockheed, and more prosaic near-Earth transit work performed as public-private partnerships with newer firms like SpaceX and OrbitalATK. Facing tight budgets, NASA’s efforts to split resources between the two have resulted in delays on all sides. The new administration promised a chance for advocates of both sides to re-litigate the pros and cons of each approach.
Trump’s comments on the campaign trail and his initial choice of advisers suggested that the businessman would lean toward reeling back NASA’s Mars ambitions and directing more resources to private companies operating in low-Earth orbit or, in the future, near the moon.
But as the transition moved forward, new personnel replaced advisers who had leaned toward the commercial option. When the transition team announced the group it would send to evaluate NASA, only one member had experience in the “new space” sector, rather than at traditional aerospace contractors or in NASA itself. The group’s leader, Christopher Shank, was the policy director on the House Science and Technology Committee, which backed traditional contractors in their fights with disruptive competitors.
One key source of this change, transition sources say, is Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, another early Trump backer and the president-elect’s choice as attorney general. Huntsville, Alabama, is a traditional home of the space program’s major contractors, and Sessions has battled valiantly to keep jobs and money there. Particularly important is the Space Launch System, a massive new rocket built in Huntsville by Boeing and intended to explore the solar system. It may be too expensive to fly more than once every few years, and could soon be outclassed by commercial rockets built by SpaceX or Blue Origin.
SLS, naturally, is one of the programs that could be on the chopping block in a new administration, unless Sessions and his allies can defend it.
Thiel is no fan of NASA’s traditional relationship with aerospace contractors. During the campaign, he was critical of failed government tech projects, telling the Republican National Convention that “our government was once high-tech” but is now “broken.” “We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government,” Thiel said.
Thiel was also an early investor in SpaceX, run by his former Pay-Pal colleague Elon Musk, through his vehicle Founder’s Fund. Musk’s company was essentially designed to disrupt traditional aerospace contractors. Ethics watchdogs worry Thiel may profit from decisions made during the transition that affect SpaceX or other companies he invests in, like Palantir. Neither the Trump transition team nor a spokesperson for Thiel responded to requests for comment.
Thiel pushed to add several commercially minded members to the NASA transition team, two people familiar with the discussions confirmed for Quartz, passing on concerned messages from Musk and from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose space firm Blue Origin is ramping up plans to begin manufacturing new orbital rockets. Musk also raised those concerns directly after Trump’s meeting with tech leaders last week.
Charles Miller, a former NASA official who now works as a consultant for commercial space companies, was added to the NASA landing team yesterday. Officials expected that Alan Stern, who chairs the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and Alan Lindenmoyer, a former NASA official who was an architect of the programs that use private companies to ferry cargo to the International Space Station, will be added to the team as well.
Now, the new players in the space industry hope there will be a level playing field when it comes to decisions like the appointment of a NASA administrator that could shape space policy for years to come.