Does Biden’s space agenda pick up where Trump’s left off?
The narrative that domestic issues would overwhelm the Biden administration’s first year could not be further from the truth… or further from Earth for that matter.
Fresh off NASA’s successful fourth flight of its Mars helicopter Ingenuity, it was announced on 2 May that US President Joe Biden would be continuing the Trump administration-revived National Space Council. Vice President Kamala Harris, who will act as its chairwoman, tweeted “In America, when we shoot for the moon, we plant our flag on it.” Shortly afterwards, former US Senator from Florida Bill Nelson was sworn in as NASA’s 14th Administrator. He subsequently named Janet Petro the first woman director of the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and Vanessa Wyche the first woman of colour director of the Johnson Space Centre in Houston.
The embers of American space policy are quietly burning behind the backdrop of President Biden’s economic recovery agenda and his transatlantic diplomacy surge. And while Biden gratuitously took his red pen to much of his predecessor’s policy programs, experts are breathing a sigh of relief that American space policy appears to have some forward continuity. And for good reason - there is much to accomplish in the space policy realm.
Biden’s inauguration was preceded by speculation as to whether he would pursue a space policy, and if so, where exactly he would direct it. The first points to assess are where Biden’s policies converge with those of his predecessor. Both on a manned mission to the Moon and the future of the US Space Force, it appears Trump’s space aspirations will be carried onward. But it is just as crucial to analyse where Biden’s approach will diverge: namely, a much clearer focus on combatting climate change.
Stability From One Administration to the Next
A trip to the Moon
In February it was confirmed by White House press secretary Jen Psaki that Biden remains committed to the Trump-championed Artemis program, which seeks to land the first woman and person of colour on the moon. The original National Space Policy, released by the Trump administration in December 2020, sought to complete the mission in 2024, establish a permanent manned presence by 2028, and press onward to Mars in the 2030s. This rather ambitious policy is now unlikely to meet its 2024 target. However, a reinvigorated commitment by Biden to continue the pursuit will ease the concerns of a US Congress wary of approving the sort of funding requested by the previous administration.
The Biden administration has certainly put its money where its mouth is, requesting $6.9 billion for the Artemis program in its FY2022 discretionary funding letter to the US Senate Appropriations Committee. This is an increase of $325 million from the previous year.
Experts like Kaitlyn Johnson of the Center for Strategic & International Studies predict that this sort of continuity will open the door for better long-term strategic planning in US space policy, noting that programs like Artemis “spur innovation, develop new commercial markets, and inspire generations of new leaders.“ Johnson’s observations have taken on greater resonance, as Biden has heavily emphasised the value of innovation in his post-COVID recovery push, particularly in infrastructure. Johnson’s emphasis on partnerships with commercial space initiatives is also crucial, as companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic seek to execute their lofty goals of private space exploration.
SpaceX’s involvement with the Artemis program is particularly important, as its Starship vehicle was recently selected by NASA to land on the Moon. For years, policymakers had been pushing for NASA to partner with private companies to develop a more cost-effective lunar landing vehicle for Artemis. Eric Berger of Ars Technica says SpaceX’s selection, as the financially leaner options against competitors Dynetics’ and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin’s designs, sends the right message to Congress: that NASA is willing to work within the budgetary confines necessary to drive the mission.
Artemis is sure to be a high priority for Vice President Harris’ National Space Council. And the country could certainly use the interstellar inspiration.
US Space Force is a serious matter
For all of the mainstream ridicule that the US Space Force seemed to endure at its founding in 2019, President Biden has confirmed that the independent armed service is here to stay. Michael Sinclair of Brookings points to the importance of such an affirmation in allaying the inherent uncertainty and bureaucratic instability surrounding the introduction of a new branch of the armed forces - the first in over 70 years.
In a signal of such affirmation, Biden’s budget allocates a $2.2 billion boost to the US Space Force. The Pentagon contends that the funding is necessary for investments in space technology, particularly amid competition with China and Russia, whose People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force and Russian Aerospace Force both pre-date the US Space Force.
The emphasis placed on the continuity of the US Space Force highlights the military dimension of a quickly developing space race from which Washington clearly has no intention of backing down. In fact, Administrator Nelson has picked up where his Trump-appointed predecessor left off in trying to leverage China’s space success to obtain more funding for NASA from Congress. China’s 2019 unmanned landing on the far side of the moon, its Mars rover landing a few months ago, and its announcement just last month of a planned joint space station with Russia seem to be spurring Nelson’s urgent appeals to Congress. Such anti-China appeals are certainly in line with that of the previous administration, which is significant as President Biden seeks to temper trans-Pacific hostilities.
As if great power competition on Earth wasn’t enough, it seems that space will only become more important as a major battleground, particularly as American commercial missions begin to enter the arena.
What is Biden changing?
More weight on climate change
In the biggest divergence from his predecessor on US space policy, former NASA deputy director Lori Garver predicts climate change will dominate Biden’s space agenda.
While Trump’s National Space Policy mentioned the word “climate” only once in its thirty-two pages, the Democratic Party platform in the lead up to the 2020 election was clear in its intent to boost funding to NASA’s and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth observation missions. And in the days following Biden’s inauguration, NASA announced the appointment of its first ever senior climate adviser. Whereas Trump sought to zero out funding for Earth observation in his budget proposals, Nelson brought clarity to NASA’s climate change mission in his confirmation hearing, making clear that “you can't mitigate climate change unless you measure it.”
Biden’s insertion of a climate change agenda in space policy means greater resources for the research and development of satellites and manned missions to observe weather patterns, changing sea levels and climate-related migration. It also presents an opportunity to audaciously pursue “space-related renewable energy technology”, such as space-based solar power.
These sorts of innovation-driven missions are crucial as Biden pursues not only a whole-of-government approach to tackling climate change, but an internationally cooperative one as well. NASA has a track record of working with international partners to observe climate phenomena like sea-level rise and polar ice cap loss, with an upcoming Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission launching next year in conjunction with the French, Canadian and British space agencies. Biden’s proposed $2.3 billion for NASA’s Earth observation programs could prove critical in demonstrating to the international community the grandeur of his vision to reverse the effects of climate change. And more resources for transnational collaboration will only sweeten the multilateral climate mission.
For an administration that is doing its utmost to lead the world on climate change, this takes it to a new frontier.
It appears as though space policy will have forward projection in the Biden administration, with a comprehensive approach driving the agenda in the continuation of the National Space Council. While Trump and Biden naturally disagree on anything and everything, US space policy seems to have enjoyed some continuity in the presidential transition. A manned lunar mission and the US Space Force are the mainstays of this approach (with a dash of anti-China rhetoric carried over as well). However, Biden’s main deviation from the Trump administration is his desire for NASA to play a significant role in monitoring and fighting climate change. While space is typically a bipartisan policy area, the test will be to which mission congressional dollars are allocated: space exploration or Earth observation.
Nigel Huckle is a recent graduate of the University of Melbourne’s Master of International Relations. He is also the winner of The Young Diplomats Society’s Foreign Policy Analysis Competition.