What Joe Biden could mean for US space policy

One small step for a presidential candidate. What kind of leap for the space program?
One small step for a presidential candidate. What kind of leap for the space program?
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
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Election day in the US is just seven weeks away. Space is not the top issue! Still, changes at the White House are the rare moments that can shift the slow-grinding gears of the US space program. Quartz spoke to Casey Dreier, the senior space policy adviser at the Planetary Society, about what’s on the horizon for US space policy.

How should people who care about space evaluate presidential campaigns?

Space has rarely been a presidential issue during a campaign… that space is not a partisan issue is a good thing. It can make it hard to say what president would be better for space. The question is, how much of a difference would you see in a Trump and Biden administration?

I don’t think necessarily in broad strokes you would see a huge change. Look at the Democratic Party Platform—a relatively robust embrace of human exploration of the moon and Mars, endorsing the idea of sending humans into deep space. Beyond that, we are in speculative territory.

What are the big space questions the president will face in 2021?

We are actually coming out of a huge transition period in NASA’s history after the retirement of the space shuttle, moving into the SLS/Orion and commercial era. Now it comes to priority and speed. How fast will we go to the moon? How much money to pursue that goal as a balanced part of the national priority is this administration going to have? A good way to think about space, in terms of what motivates any administration and how they approach it, is how is it perceived to address their goals for the nation? How is NASA a tool of domestic and international policy? Rarely is an individual president going to say, ‘I love NASA so much we are going to go to the moon.’

For the Biden administration, we can speculate by looking at their priorities for the nation. Focused a lot on workforce, manufacturing, R&D and climate change. They could see NASA as a chance to push those policies.

Biden doesn’t have a deep space record, but he was the “stimulus czar” as vice president, which directed significant funding to NASA—is that a strategy we might see again?

One of their big proposals is for $300 billion in new R&D spending in the country, and it’s actually maybe telling that they list as recipients for that money literally every science agency except for NASA. Which I hope is an oversight, but a surprising one nonetheless.

NASA is not just doing human spaceflight, it’s one of the biggest resources for scientists doing astronomy, planetary science, astrobiology, earth science. It was a surprising lack of mention of NASA in that context. That in itself may be telling of how the campaign sees NASA compared to the National Science Foundation, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and the Department of Energy.

This is not unusual as this goes. We have to read in between the lines. The lack of how NASA is integrated in their existing goals is telling to some degree. I really hope they see NASA as a tool of domestic and international policy to help serve their goals.

How did the Trump administration change space policy in 2017?

At the program level, very little changed. If you want something to happen while you’re president, you can’t usually start from scratch.

The Deep Space Gateway became rebranded as the Lunar Gateway, even though conceptually it didn’t change that much. There is a strong consistency, because of the fundamental pace that you can develop new space hardware, mixed with the difficulty in fundamentally canceling large programs that have strong congressional buy-in. The biggest change was the addition of returning to the lunar surface, relatively late in the process—an additive program more than fundamental re-thinking.

One of the things that the Trump administration has demonstrated has been its whole-of-government approach to space. Space Force is a really big development in this, by elevating space as a so-called warfighting domain for national defense, and creating its own branch of the armed services to focus on that.

The National Space Council has been working with space policy, commercialization, regulatory, spectrum and bandwidth, space traffic management, and cybersecurity—major space policy directives. A good question is if you will see a similar level of priority under Biden… under Obama, they talked about establishing a space council and ultimately decided against it.

In the last six months, NASA has said the Lunar Gateway won’t play a role in early Artemis missions, and suggested astronauts will not visit the lunar poles. Will next year bring more changes?

The most likely re-shuffling in a Biden administration would be the timeline. To drop the 2024 deadline and thus lower NASA’s resource needs and go back to the slower-paced proposal for the late 2020s-ish return.

The lunar landing is the most precarious part for the program. It has the least amount of international buy-in; politically, it’s still in the build-up phase. Keeping Gateway is much more plausible. There is already a contract, it has international partners, and that gives it a certain amount of stability, particularly for a candidate like Biden, a small “c” conservative on disrupting international agreements.

We also have to keep in mind the function of priority. Of course we want to go back to the moon, but where does that fall into the priority with all of their other goals?

Assuming the Democrats come into power, next year you’ll be facing significant budget deficits, probably a strong desire to cut spending from the Republican Party. You will see lots of initiatives proposed by the Biden administration that don’t involve space but involve healthcare, climate, basic manufacturing, R&D.

Last week, former NASA administrator Charles Bolden suggested that the over-budget SLS rocket will be canceled by whoever wins the election. What are the similarities to the decision to end the Constellation program in 2010, the last big NASA initiative canceled by a new president?

SLS is much further along than Constellation was. It’s been running now for almost 10 years. It has continued to gain budget. It is building the hardware, it is close to launch. That doesn’t mean it’s invulnerable, but it means it is in a much better shape than Constellation was. It is easier to cancel programs when they are in the planning stage than when you have hardware built. That’s not a logic thing, that’s a human thing. There could be a big fight over SLS to do a deal with Republicans to get support for other aspects of their agenda.

Do you have any predictions for 2021?

In this kind of discussion about changing administrations, human spaceflight is really what we are talking about, because human spaceflight does not naturally have the kind of external consensus driving force that the science directorate does. Human spaceflight is more of a geopolitical activity.

But all of this science is going to be really important, and there are so many exciting things happening there. Perseverance will land. Lucy will launch. DART will launch. Maybe we’ll see the first launch of the SLS. All of those things are kind of on autopilot through this year. The investments being made now are what you’ll see in five to eight years. The 2020s have a real chance of being one of the most exciting decades in space exploration since the 1960s.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Correction: This story originally misreported Dreier’s employer; it is the Planetary Society, not the Planetary Foundation.