Who cares what Joe Biden thinks about space policy?
It is safe to say that “moon or Mars” is not the defining issue of the 2020 presidential election. The former vice president’s campaign declined to talk to Quartz about Biden’s space policy or share who is advising him on what to do with NASA and the nascent US Space Force.
But the next president will face key decisions that will shape not just space exploration, but also American technological and economic superiority, and the topic deserves scrutiny. In an insightful May analysis, one writer called Biden a “space policy enigma,” which is true, but perhaps a better descriptor is a space policy void.
Biden the politician is defined by his Senate career, and most lawmakers only dig into NASA if the space agency or its contractors have facilities in their district. Biden’s home state of Delaware does not, hence his transportation interests lay more with Amtrak than SLS. There is little record of his involvement with space policy as Barack Obama’s number two, though he did play a role in wringing funding from Congress.
Since taking over, president Donald Trump’s space policy has largely adopted the Obama space agenda. The key difference has been accelerating a plan, dubbed Artemis, to return US astronauts, including the first woman, to the lunar surface, now by 2024 instead of 2028. Trump has also begun an international push for a new legal understanding of what can be done on the moon that might inspire more competition than consensus with China. Biden, a longtime foreign policy maven, has said in the past that the US should work more closely with China in space.
Otherwise, the biggest trend in space under the Trump administration has been continuing to integrate public-private partnerships and fixed-price contracts into the space program. The ongoing demonstration mission of SpaceX’s crew Dragon capsule at the International Space Station offers the best example of this.
Trump has also championed the Space Force, a new military service that will aggregate American space power under a single command. But switching the uniform patches over was the easy part. The next president will face harder decisions about how the service purchases and designs its expensive hardware, and what kind of new duties it will take on as geopolitical posturing increasingly takes place in orbit.
Still, amid a pandemic, a trade war, and a likely global recession, whoever arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on inauguration day next January will not have space at top of mind.
If it is Biden, that likely means Congress takes a bigger role—and that in turn could spell trouble for the goal of reaching the moon in 2024, and those commercial partnerships. Some influential Democratic lawmakers have been skeptical of the public-private approach, despite ongoing troubles with traditional contracts. The head of the Aerospace Industries Association, Eric Fanning, attracted some attention for endorsing Biden, a move that could harm relations with the Trump administration. Some say the former Obama official chose his personal politics over AIA’s corporate members, but perhaps there is more overlap in interest than first appears.
Without leadership from the executive branch, the space-industrial complex may win out over more innovative arrangements. Much may rest on the next NASA administrator, which could be the current incumbent, Jim Bridenstine, regardless of the election outcome. Bridenstine has proven himself adept at politics inside the space agency and at Congress, managing to push innovative programs without stepping on (too many) toes or becoming closely associated with Trump’s toxicities. Biden may find it easier to keep him, as Bill Clinton did with George H.W. Bush’s NASA administrator, Daniel Goldin, in the 1990s.
Given the timelines involved with building space hardware, much of NASA’s policy is path dependent—officials are reluctant to give up on expensive programs even if that means throwing good money after bad. But it is fun to imagine what an administration with more interest in space could do with the National Space Council, an organ for coordinating space activities across the government that was re-established by the Trump administration.
A space program focused on earth science and climate change, which the public tends to prefer? Rebuilding the exploration program completely around public-private partnerships and economic development in low-earth orbit? A sustainable moon base? Joint exploration missions with China?
A version of this story was first published in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter.