|Biden and space
Focus on earth science expected
Space science is not among the initial priorities of any new administration,
but Biden is not expected to significantly impact operations at Stennis or
Under president-elect Joe Biden, NASA may focus more on studying climate change
and earth sciences and less on manned missions and building rockets. But the
continued commercialization of the space industry is expected to continue.
That’s the view of outside analysts, based on Biden’s eight years as vice president
and language in the Democratic Party platform. But they admit a lot of the analysis is
based on reading the tea leaves, because the Biden campaign and his transition
team have not had a lot to say about space issues.
The campaign didn’t issue a space policy statement, a move that John Logsdon,
founder and former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy
Institute, called “surprising.” But the main focus in the early days of his administration
will be controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and helping the economy to recover.
The NASA transition team Biden named in early November is led by Ellen Stofan,
who served as the agency’s chief scientist from 2013 to 2016. The team also
includes an astrophysicist and a climate researcher. The Planetary Society, a non-
profit that promotes space exploration, said this is more evidence the incoming
administration “will consider NASA through a scientific lens.”
The organization said it expects NASA’s Earth Sciences division will once again be a
priority and will see its budget grow once again. Under President Barack Obama, the
division received $1.92 billion in fiscal 2017. Under President Donald Trump, in fiscal
2020 that figure has been cut back by $140 million, to $1.78 billion.
Restoring funding for Earth science research would meet the Democratic Party
platform goal of strengthening NASA observation missions “to better understand how
climate change is impacting our home planet.”
“I’ve seen a lot of commentaries that NASA will get the short shrift, that it will not be
as big of a priority,” said Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the U.S. Air Force
School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base in
Montgomery, Ala. But she notes that NASA hasn’t been a priority for any
administration, since President John F. Kennedy successfully challenged the agency
to get a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. “We have a pretty bad record
of seeing things through,” Cobb said.
Since Kennedy, other presidents have had grand visions of space exploration that
haven’t come to pass. President George H. W. Bush announced a Space Exploration
Initiative in 1989 that would have put American astronauts back on the moon, then
launching a manned mission to Mars. Those plans fell victim to budget cuts.
Fifteen years later, President George W. Bush announced plans for extended
missions to the moon by 2015, as a way of paving the way to eventually go to Mars.
That also failed to happen. Obama wanted NASA to build a program to take humans
to Mars in the 2030s and establish a sustained presence on the planet.
Trump scaled back those plans, but made an aggressive push to get back to the
moon by 2024. The thinking among NASA officials was that the moon could be a
“proving ground” for Mars and deep space missions, by providing a nearby low-
gravity environment where technology could be tested.
But a NASA Inspector General’s report released shortly after the election was
heavily critical of the timetable for the Artemis program. The Planetary Society
expects Biden will push back the 2024 goal and possibly scrap it all together.
“Moon-to-Mars will remain the nation's human spaceflight goals, though likely via a
revised pathway,” the organization said.
Backing off the timetable for lunar missions might not bode well for NASA’s Space
Launch System heavy lift rocket, which would be the vehicle to kick off the Artemis
missions. The final test of the rocket is set to happen at Stennis Space Center a few
days before Christmas.
“There’s a lot of controversy if the SLS is even necessary,” Cobb said. The SLS is
years behind schedule and billions over budget. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is developing
its own heavy lift vehicles, so there’s talk about turning over the program to private
While Trump has offered space race rhetoric in terms of a hostile competition with
China, Biden is expected to go back to the Obama-era idea of promoting
international cooperation. But Trump’s Space Force is expected to survive even after
he leaves office.
“Even if Biden wanted to roll it back, it would be nearly impossible to do,” Cobb said.
“Once you get in the government bureaucracy, it’s difficult to claw back.”
But she doesn’t expect the size of the force to grow beyond its current level of
15,000 and said it may get trimmed back in the looming budget battles over defense
The biggest factor in how the Biden administration handles NASA could be Vice
President-elect Kamala Harris. Vice presidents have played a large role in dealing
with the space agency, Cobb notes. Vice President Mike Pence has been an
enthusiastic leader of the National Space Council, a policy development office that
handles civil, commercial, national security and international space policy matters.
The organization was created during the Bush administration, disbanded under
President Bill Clinton, and brought back by Trump.
Biden hasn’t indicated if he will keep the space council in place. And how active
Harris will be on the council is unknown. Cobb notes that the vice president elect is
from California, a state that is generally more supportive of space issues. That may
give her a greater awareness of the technology used for climate research and earth
sensing and the potential commercial applications
Gulf Coast space facilities, such as Stennis Space Center in South Mississippi and
Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, aren’t expected to see any significant
changes under a Biden administration. Those properties have powerful
constituencies. “Congress is pretty vested in space exploration policy,” Cobb said.
There will be a change at the top of NASA. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said
shortly after the election that he believed he “would not be the right person” to lead
the space agency and the job should be held by someone with a close relationship to
new administration. Because of the focus on the pandemic and economic recovery,
it could be several months before Biden offers up a nominee to lead the agency.
- Timothy Boone