Trump’s America is lost in space

Nationalist rhetoric at odds with decades-long internationalist exploration

First Man, which tells the story of astronaut Neil Armstrong and his famous moon landing, opens this weekend in Ireland. Its debut at the Venice Film Festival in August was not without controversy, as it played a part in the larger awakening of nationalistic and right-wing Americans.

“Space”, it appears, is the latest industry to be used by the Trump administration to generate dissonance between the United States and its perceived rivals, in this case global space-faring superpowers.

First, there was the creation of the US space force, with the presumed aim of creating an modern-era space arms race. It was followed by Republican politicians and supporters harshly criticising First Man for not depicting Armstrong planting the American flag on its newly conquered land.

In a one-size-fits-all condemnation of anything and everything that does not celebrate nationalism, right-wing TV pundits labelled Ryan Gosling – who plays Armstrong – an “idiot” for defending the decision not to feature the flag-planting.


Bizarre comparison were made to the “take a knee”protests over police brutality happening throughout the National Football League. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted his outrage. Buzz Aldrin – who landed on the moon with Armstrong – took a shot at the movie by sharing historic photos of the flag being planted in 1969, using the hashtags #proudtobeAmerican #freedom #honor #onenation.

Here’s the problem with Trump’s “space force”, Buzz Aldrin and Marco Rubio: like many industries, the US’s space strategy relies on international co-operation and diplomacy to merely survive, never mind compete.

International Space Station

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that America-first policies when applied to Nasa equates to “America last”. Globalisation has enormously helped, not hindered, US space interests.

The International Space Station (ISS) has been described as the most expensive “thing” ever constructed, costing a cool $150 billion. According to a US government report, a mission to Mars has been estimated to be a $220 billion project. It’s easy to see that the case for co-operation in space comes down to management of budgetary resources and sharing overheads with other space-faring nations.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that America-first policies when applied to Nasa equates to 'America last'

However, the benefits of collaboration surpass financial metrics, and include programmatic and political sustainability – vital for long-term missions exceeding the duration of any presidential term – and diplomatic prestige and incentives for political co-operation outside of space endeavours.

Trump’s call to “Make America great again” has found resonance among both the political right and narcissists; two groups which are mostly, but not always, separate.

As Rubio tweeted last week, “ . . . people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together”. This sounds quasi-sensible, until he continues, “The American people paid for that mission [the Apollo 11 moon landing], on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”

‘Me-first’ galaxy

Incorrect on all counts. The US and the USSR began discussions on the peaceful uses of space in 1959, presenting to the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, 10 years before Apollo 11. Wernher Von Braun, a German scientist who had worked for the Nazis, was the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that carried Armstrong to the moon. The last person to walk on the lunar surface was Eugene Cernan, son of eastern European immigrants and a Nasa astronaut.

The US is not alone in its turn to “me first” space policies; Theresa May has been leading the most ridiculous and laughable campaign in the UK to build its own global positioning system (GPS) after a falling-out with Europe after losing contracts on the large European satellite system Galileo. Instead of being able to pay for Galileo’s services, as any non-European country must do, May has thrown her toys out of the pram and has vowed to build a £5 billion “proudly British” satellite system of her own in a post-Brexit showdown. The Tory’s new pet space project is going to end up just like Brexit; confused, disoriented and much more financially and emotionally expensive than originally imagined.

Theresa May has been leading a ridiculous campaign in the UK to build its own global positioning system (GPS) after a falling-out with Europe

Space exploration, regardless of mission, is a humankind effort. Creating financial borders, closing open markets and erecting walls will not remove the need for continued partnership, nor will it negate the enthusiasm for global participation in an industry which addresses humanity’s interest and curiosity about our place in the universe. Luckily Nasa, like all global space exploration efforts, amounts to much more than any one president, any one nation and any one ideology.

Sinéad O’Sullivan is a space economist and a Sainsbury management fellow at Harvard Business School