Despite the ongoing pandemic, there’s much to be excited about in space this year. NASA’s Perseverance rover is less than a month away from landing on Mars; the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch on Halloween; and the Space Launch System—NASA’s most powerful rocket ever—could see its inaugural launch later this year. And of course, there’s the Artemis program, which is supposed to deliver a woman and man to the lunar surface in just three years.
We will learn much in the coming weeks and months about President Biden’s NASA policy and what his administration believes is the best path forward for the American space program. In the meantime, we reached out to space experts, asking a very simple question: What should be Biden’s NASA priorities?
John Logsdon, a professor of political science and international affairs from the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said: “I think it is important for President Biden and his administration to early on indicate a commitment to sustaining a human space exploration effort, with a return to the Moon as its first objective. The details of the current Artemis plan are likely to change, but it is well past time for the United States to once again be sending humans to distant destinations.”
Indeed, NASA is full-steam-ahead on the upcoming Artemis missions. The space agency originally planned for a lunar landing in 2028, but the Trump administration bumped that to 2024. It’s widely suspected that Biden will return NASA to its original timeline, but we can only speculate at this point.
Howard McCurdy, a professor of public affairs in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University in Washington, D.C., hopes that Biden keeps his eye on this prize—and other prizes to come. “His main space priority should be establishing a lunar/Mars exploration plan that lasts more than five years—also determining the future of the Boeing Starliner, launching the [James] Webb space telescope, and cementing the fate of the International Space Station,” said McCurdy. “He will have many science priorities, but NASA is not near the top of the list.”
The whole Boeing Starliner thing is certainly worth a think, as this project—a spacecraft for delivering astronauts to the ISS—has been beset by problems and delays. The first crewed test of this system still appears to be a way’s off.
At the same time, SpaceX has delivered in the form the CrewDragon spacecraft, which successfully transported NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the ISS last year. McCurdy also brings up a good point about Mars, as the Artemis Moon program is a skipping stone for the first human journey to the Red Planet, which could happen in the 2030s.
Jessica West, a program officer at Project Ploughshares and the managing editor of its Space Security Index, had this to say: “The future of the Artemis program is essential. NASA’s international partners are going to want assurances and clarity on the scope of the U.S. commitment and timeline. Cooperation is key, both to succeed at space exploration and to ensure that our planet and humanity share in the benefits. This starts with diplomacy. NASA has drafted the Artemis Accords as a tool for the development of norms for space exploration. But it’s not clear how or if it will work with the wider international community to turn this into a more inclusive process, at a time when other states also have lunar ambitions.”
“The Biden Administration should also be sensitive to the effects that the Space Force–and it’s rhetorical emphasis on warfighting and domination–have on NASA and the global perceptions of it’s lunar ambitions,” West added.
West raises a very good point about the Artemis Accords. Humanity’s tendrils into space are growing longer and more numerous with each passing year, making things more complicated from a geopolitical perspective. It would be good to get buy-in from the international community on such matters, which may prove difficult with countries like Russia and China.
Peter Singer, a strategist at New America and author of Ghost Fleet and Burn-In, also chimed in about Space Force, the newest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. “Trump created Space Command, mostly for the reason he saw it as an applause line at his rallies,” he said. “So how does NASA and this new military organization co-exist over the long term? They will need to work together when it makes sense, but to also ensure that we don’t risk the actual, or just appearance, of militarization of space in our civilian activities.”
Ah yes—the ongoing threat that we might militarize space. That’s tricky one, particularly as the U.S. tries to keep pace with its aggressive adversaries and as Space Force works to achieve “spacepower” in this prospective warfighting domain.
Moriba Jah, an aerospace engineer at the University of Texas, recommended the following: “The National Space Council—an organization that focuses and reports out on various national activities with regards to space, both in government, academia, and industry—should be allowed to continue under Biden. NASA has a footprint in the National Space Council, and that should be allowed to continue.”
Jah added: “There should be a dedicated emphasis in space safety and sustainability, including as it relates to space traffic management. In 2018, Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3 [which focused on space traffic management]. The former administration called on the Office of Space Commerce to take the lead role—and I’m good with that. As for NASA’s role, it should provide input and oversight to the government regarding the science and technology needs of space traffic management.”
Space traffic management will most certainly be an issue moving forward. As it stands, the rules surrounding what goes into space, and how much of it, are fairly loose. As of January 20, SpaceX has over 1,000 Starlink satellites in orbit, with plans to add thousands more. That satellites might crash into each other, creating large and dangerous clouds of debris, is a possibility that increases with each successive satellite added to low Earth orbit. We need someone to play traffic cop up there, as well as someone to take out the trash.
Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission and professor at the University of Arizona, hopes that the Biden Administration will maintain or increase funding for the NASA Science Mission Directorate. “This Directorate performs essential research to monitor and predict the effects of climate change, explore the Solar System, and survey the Universe,” he said. “Budgets over the past four years have been favorable, and this is one area of the U.S. federal government where science activities remain healthy. The amazing achievements of NASA science programs serve as shining examples of what we can do as a nation when we unite and focus on a common vision.”
Well said. It would be sad to squander all the good things NASA has going at the moment, including satellites to help us predict bad space weather and weather on Earth, surveys to monitor melting glaciers, and spacecraft careering into the Sun and interstellar space. And, per Lauretta’s interests, grabbing surface samples from a nearby asteroid.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had plenty of sensible advice for President Biden: “NASA is the one part of the U.S. government that is not burning down right now, so don’t mess with (for the most part) success. What the human spaceflight program needs most is for the political leadership not to pull another 180, so continue Artemis despite its flaws, but remove the unrealistic 2024 deadline and appoint leaders who are not afraid to hold Boeing to account.”
McDowell also recommended firming up a plan for the end of the International Space Station, which has now been in orbit for more than 22 years and is showing its age. “Keep ISS going for a few more years to reap the investment made on CrewDragon and Starliner, but decide on the shutdown plan.”
“On the robotic/science side, fund it fully—supporting the climate science satellites and the education work the previous Administration tried to cut, get the Webb telescope into space and working, and let the science community pick the priorities going forward,” McDowell said. “Above all, don’t misuse the science program as a justification for the human space stuff—for example by forcing an emphasis on lunar-related science to provide a spurious justification for Artemis, which is the sort of thing that’s been done in the past.”
We also heard from Avi Loeb, an astronomy professor at Harvard University, whose recommendations were both philosophical and practical. “Given the wide interest in space exploration from the public, the scientific community and the commercial sector, it is essential to establish a new, bold vision that will maintain the leadership of the U.S. in space,” Loeb said. “This goes well beyond national security interests and relates back to JFK’s vision from 1962, the year I was born. The public is eager for inspiring initiatives, and space offers an ideal backdrop for an exciting vision that would advance our nation’s technological superiority. The importance of such a vision also builds on the immediate needs to add satellites that will allow better control of our effect on the climate and improve internet connectivity across the globe.”
Hear, hear. Space investment is often considered superfluous or indulgent, particularly as we face no shortage of problems on the surface. The challenge for Biden will be in achieving a fine balance—one that meets our needs here on Earth, while continuing to fulfill the legacy and potential of the American space program.
Good luck, Joe.