Will President Trump Break President Obama's Mars Promise?

By Markets Fool.com

I still have the same sense of wonder about our space program that I did as a child. It represents an essential part of our character -- curiosity and exploration, innovation and ingenuity, pushing the boundaries of what's possible and doing it before anybody else.
-- President Barack Obama

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Goodbye, Space Shuttle. Hello, Mars? Image source: Getty Images.

For space investors, Barack Obama may be best remembered as the president who retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, shuttering America's manned space program for years, and delivering our astronauts into the tender mercies of Russia's Roscosmos (and its bill collection department). But that's not how he wants to be remembered.

Instead, President Obama wants us to remember him as the man who launched America's race to Mars.

Mars, ho!

Last month, the president published an opinion piece on CNN.com emphasizing how his administration has "revitalized technology innovation at NASA, extended the life of the International Space Station, and helped American companies create private-sector jobs by capitalizing on the untapped potential of the space industry."

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The next goal is "clear," says the president: We're "sending humans to Mars by the 2030s."

Forget 2030. What about 2017?

Now, in case you haven't heard, President Obama himself won't be around to personally lead the charge to Mars. In fact, by my count, the president has less than 10 weeksleft in office before President-elect Donald Trump takes over. So what does he think about Mars?

In recent weeks, Trump's senior policy advisoron space, former Congressman Robert Walker, has been making the rounds of the media and laying out the president-elect's plans for space. Broadly speaking, these track what President Obama has been working on. Trump supports:

  • Transferring low-earth orbit (LEO) operations (potentially including the International Space Station) to private industry.
  • Expanding such commercial operations in the field of small satellites in particular.
  • Targeting "human exploration of the solar system by the end of the century."
  • Preceded by "human exploration of Mars."

That seems pretty clear-cut. Like President Obama, President-elect Trump has his eye on the Mars prize. Indeed, he's looking even further out, perhaps to a day when we might see an American flag planted on Pluto by 2200. In furtherance of these two goals -- increased handoff of LEO space work to private companies, and a government-led drive for deeper space -- the president-elect plans to reinstitute the National Space Council to consider questions of which parties are best suited to perform which missions in space.

At the same time, though, Walker says,"It makes little sense for numerous launch vehicles to be developed at taxpayer cost, all with essentially the same technology and payload capacity. Coordinated policy would end such duplication of effort...."

What does it mean for investors?

Writing as Trump's surrogate, Walker heaped praiseupon "vibrant companies" such as Boeing (NYSE: BA) and its partner in United Launch Alliance, Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT); upon ULA's partner companies in building NASA's Space Launch System -- Orbital ATK (NYSE: OA) and Aerojet Rocketdyne (NYSE: AJRD) in particular -- and upon such privately held space pioneers as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic.

At the same time, though, while a Trump administration would not stand in the way of private companies doing business in space, neither is it eager to spend taxpayer dollars to fund multiple competitors. Rather, Walker appears to be suggesting that a Trump administration would prefer to pick one winner to do each space job NASA needs done, and fund that.

Other experts posit other ways in which a Trump administration could shift away from Obama Administration policy. For example, Trump may favor a return to the moon before a trek to Mars. He might side with Congressional critics of NASA's plan to capture an asteroid with its Space Launch System (SLS), robbing that program of funds to pay for something else. For that matter, Trump might even abort the multi-multibillion-dollar SLS project entirely if private space companies such as SpaceX succeed in building something even more powerful, and cheaper, for the Mars trip.

(Indeed, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's recent talk in Guadalajara, in which he laid out plans to establish fuel depots throughout the solar system, appears to jibe nicely with President-elect Trump's desire for "human exploration of the[whole] solar system.")

In short, President-elect Trump seems inclined to follow the broad outlines of President Obama's plans to land on Mars -- and even go further than that. Still, NASA under Trump's administration could take a significantly different path to Mars, creating significant implications for the companies NASA hires to help it accomplish its mission. How will this affect you as an investor? Stay tuned.

We certainly will. And as Trump's plans firm up, we'll keep you up to date.

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