Mixed Reactions in Space Community to Immigration Executive Order

Elon Musk, Trump at meeting
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, left, attending a Jan. 23 meeting with President Donald Trump, says he is seeking input on ways to amend, but not overturn, an executive order restricting travel by people from several nations. (Image credit: White House)

WASHINGTON — As scientists and others protest a White House executive order restricting immigration from several nations, many in the space industry are not yet taking a stand on the issue.

The executive order, signed by President Donald Trump Jan. 27, blocked entry into the United States for 90 days for people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It also suspended the entry of refugees into the U.S., regardless of nation of origin, for 120 days.

The order generated protests across the country, particularly at major airports where travelers deemed to be in violation of the order were detained. Organizations also filed legal challenges to the order, leading in some cases to legal injunctions against its implementation. [6 Things to Know About Trump and NASA]

Those protests extended to the scientific community, concerned that the order would restrict the travel of scientists and prevent them from studying or working in the United States. A Jan. 31 letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, signed by more than 150 other organizations and universities, called on the president to rescind the executive order.

"The Executive Order will discourage many of the best and brightest international students, scholars, engineers and scientists from studying and working, attending academic and scientific conferences, or seeking to build new businesses in the United States," the letter stated. "Implementation of this policy will compromise the United States' ability to attract international scientific talent and maintain scientific and economic leadership."

Among those organizations signing the letter were the American Astronomical Society, American Geophysical Union and American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics. "Closing our borders to people from certain countries and certain ethnic or religious backgrounds recalls some of our darkest days and goes against our national principles," Kevin Marvel, executive officer of the American Astronomical Society, said in a statement accompanying the letter.

International organizations have also weighed in against the ban. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), in a Jan. 30 statement, said it was "profoundly concerned" about the effect the executive order, and possible reactions from other nations, "could have on international collaboration in astronomy and the mobility of scientists."

The IAU organizes a triennial conference, the General Assembly, last held in Hawaii in 2015. The release noted the event attracted 3,000 astronomers and generated up to $20 million in economic benefits for the state. "We want to continue organizing scientific meetings in the United States of America as well as anywhere else in the world," IAU General Secretary Piero Benvenuti said in a statement. "Scientific progress benefits all humankind, and exchange meetings should include scientists from all countries."

Other organizations, though, are taking a wait-and-see approach to the executive order. The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), an international organization of space scientists, is holding its next large conference, the 42nd COSPAR Assembly, in July 2018 in Pasadena, California. For now, those plans are unchanged. [50 Years of Presidential Visions for Space Exploration]

"There is nothing at this point in time that would compromise this event," said Jean-Louis Fellous, executive director of COSPAR, in a Feb. 2 statement to SpaceNews. "COSPAR was founded in the times of the Cold War to overcome political obstacles and encourage international cooperation in space research. This remains one of the COSPAR's goals."

While space science organizations have been largely outspoken against the executive order, many companies and industry organizations are keeping quiet. Few have made a statement either opposing or supporting the order.

"We're not yet certain of the full impacts of the new immigration policy," David Melcher, president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, said Feb. 2. "We understand there is the potential for our member companies to be affected. It will take some time for those implications to become apparent."

Melcher added he wanted to work with the Trump administration "to find the best balance between our national security requirements and supporting our industry's potential to create more high-skill, high-paying jobs through international trade."

In the space industry, direct implications of the policy may be limited because of export control regulations that often require employees to be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. For example, job postings on SpaceX's website routinely include language requiring applicants to be citizens of permanent residents "to conform to U.S. Government space technology export regulations," even for seemingly mundane positions like shipping clerks and dishwashers.

A few industry executives have spoken out against the order. "The best of America is open, courageous and compassionate. That's when we're strongest. The [executive order] should be withdrawn," George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, tweeted Jan. 29, commenting on a statement from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) criticizing the executive order.

One of the central figures in the debate about the executive order is Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX and a member of the President's Strategic and Policy Forum, a group of executives asked by the administration to provide advice on various issues. Musk requested on Twitter Jan. 29 "specific amendments" to the executive order, saying he would "seek advisory council consensus & present to President."

Musk added, though, that he did not expect the White House to revoke the executive order, as many have demanded. "There is no possibility of retraction, but there is possibility of modification. It's just a non-zero possibility," he wrote.

In a statement Musk posted on Twitter Feb. 2, he said he would discuss the issue at the advisory panel's next meeting Feb. 3. "In tomorrow's meeting, I and others will express our objections to the recent executive order on immigration and offer suggestions for changes to the policy," he wrote.

Musk, himself an immigrant from South Africa, appeared to distance himself from the policy itself. "Advisory councils simply provide advice, and attending does not mean that I agree with the actions by the Administration," he wrote. That statement came after another member of the council, Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick, announced Feb. 2 he was resigning from the panel in response to a backlash of criticism directed at the company after the executive order's release.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.