As president-elect Joe Biden prepares to staff his White House, politicians and pundits are speculating about what the incoming administration’s staffing decisions mean about its agenda. Understandably, most are focused on areas where the Trump administration failed. But it’s equally worthwhile to explore what a Biden Administration portends for one of the unambiguous successes of Trump’s presidency: outer-space policy.
Even Trump’s critics will admit his administration has been great for space. Though reactions to the creation of the Space Force were mixed, its strategic importance hardly needs defending in light of China’s and Russia’s increased space capabilities. Other areas — reactivating the National Space Council, promoting the commercialization of space, and revitalizing NASA — have been generally lauded as victories.
When it comes to space policy, Biden has much to live up to. How will he fare?
Biden had important space-policy successes as vice president. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program — a partnership between that agency, Boeing, and SpaceX to transport cargo and crew to the International Space Station — got off the ground during the Obama Administration. In tandem with then–NASA administrator Charles Bolden, Biden was instrumental in securing the necessary funding from Congress for the 2010 NASA budget authorization. The much-hyped SpaceX-NASA mission to the International Space Station in May was one of the final test flights for future Commercial Crew Program missions. Trump, Vice President Pence, and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine got the lion’s share of the credit for these successes, but we should keep in mind they wouldn’t have been possible without the groundwork laid by Biden.
We can afford a little optimism here. After all, Biden has a history of supporting space initiatives. He almost certainly won’t pull the plug on the Space Force. While the timeline for various Artemis Program missions will be pushed back (and space-policy experts already believed dates for key missions were motivated more by politics than sound engineering and logistics), it’s unlikely these will be shuttered, either. Biden won’t go full steam ahead into space the way Trump did, but neither is he looking to reverse recent progress.
As for personnel, Biden has already announced his NASA transition team. Headed by a former NASA chief scientist and including a former astronaut, the team certainly has the right credentials. That being said, anyone Biden puts forward to run NASA has big shoes to fill: Jim Bridenstine, who has served as NASA Administrator since 2018, is among Trump’s most successful appointments. Bridenstine’s accomplishments include shepherding forward the Artemis Program and overseeing the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for international cooperation in space. The Accords are a milestone because they set the stage for future manned lunar missions. Unfortunately, Bridenstine has said he won’t stay on at NASA, even if asked. Quite frankly, it is unlikely anyone Biden picks to replace Bridenstine will be quite as good, more due to Bridenstine’s unusual talents than any lack of capabilities among prospective Biden picks.
One possibility deserves special mention: Representative Kendra Horn (R., Okla.) has signaled interest in serving as Biden’s NASA Administrator. Horn is the chair of the House space subcommittee but was just defeated for reelection. In January, Horn introduced a NASA authorization bill that was mildly hostile to recent NASA initiatives, such as procuring services from the private sector and exploring in-situ resource utilization on the moon. If Horn gets the job, it could mean walking back recent NASA achievements made possible by for-profit companies such as SpaceX.
Of course, the actual space policies Biden pursues matter most. What can we expect?
Biden is widely anticipated to focus more on earth science, and especially climate science, than on space exploration and commercialization. His transition website lists four main priorities: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change. Biden’s singling out of climate change provides some clues as to what space activities he will emphasize. More broadly, the Democratic Party Platform contains vaguely laudatory language about space exploration, and it’s probably a good sign that the Democrats “support NASA’s work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars, taking the next step in exploring our solar system.” However, immediately following this is a sentence that shows how priorities will change: “Democrats additionally support strengthening NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth observation missions to better understand how climate change is impacting our home planet.”
Undoubtedly, part of this emphasis is a reaction to the Trump administration’s positions on climate issues, which have been less than stellar. While Trump scaled back funding requests for NASA’s Earth Sciences division, Biden will likely increase them. But it’s hard to get excited about a reorientation of NASA toward earth observation.
That’s not to say that climate science isn’t important: NASA’s observational satellites and planetary scientists should continue their work. But given NASA’s impressive progress toward returning to the moon, many space enthusiasts would like to see NASA focus on exploration. After all, other capable agencies, such as NOAA, can assist with climate projects. NASA, however, is the one agency that can tackle challenges beyond earth’s orbit.
History, personnel, and policy suggest Biden will be a good, but not great, president for outer space. Expect continued support for orbital commercial endeavors and the International Space Station, and pragmatic tolerance toward the Space Force. Also expect a more realistic timeline for the Artemis missions, and less enthusiasm for a free-market approach to space, especially beyond orbit. Finally, you can bet climate science and policy will be a staple of Biden’s approach to space. While space won’t be as exciting as it was the past two to four years, it won’t be devoid of activity, either.