What does Joe Biden believe about NASA, space exploration and commercial space?
The world knows about President Trump’s space policy, which includes a program to return astronauts to the moon and eventually send them to Mars, encourage the commercial development of the space frontier, and, most recently, establish the rule of law in space through the Artemis Accords. Trump has also established a new branch of the military, the Space Force, to protect America’s space assets and to keep the peace on the high frontier.
The same cannot be said about former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s probable opponent in the 2020 presidential election. Aside from a few tantalizing hints gleaned in an article in Medium by Patrick Chase, Biden is practically a blank slate insofar as NASA, commercial space and the Space Force are concerned. Biden, or at least his handlers, owe it to Americans who are deciding whom to vote for to reveal what the former vice president intends to do in space should he be elected.
Biden once opined, during the 2008 campaign, that he thought that China should be a full partner with NASA in its space exploration programs. Considering what the Chinese government did to the world by covering up the coronavirus pandemic, he may want to walk back that opinion.
In a post-debate summary, according to Chase’s article, Biden expressed clear support for robotic space missions. When asked about space exploration with human beings, the then-senator said, “With clear leadership we can do anything, good luck.”
Once Biden became Barack Obama’s running mate, he made a speech in Florida that supported commercial space, criticized the Republican candidate Sen. John McCain for allowing too great a gap between the retirement of the space shuttle and the advent of commercial crew vehicles and pledged an extra $2 billion for NASA to reduce that gap. It should be noted that the gap, mostly occurring during the Obama-Biden administration, will have been nine years.
What would a President Biden do with NASA, commercial space and the Space Force?
The easy way to answer this question is that Biden’s space policy could be Obamaspace 2.0. The Artemis return to the moon program would be cancelled, or at least delayed for so long as to be rendered meaningless. The Space Force would be disbanded and folded back into the Air Force. Many Democrats, especially those who hope to serve in a Biden administration, tend to be against anything that President Trump proposes just because Trump proposed it. The commercial crew program, which has American astronauts shuttled to and from the International Space Station on private-sector spacecraft, would continue because it is seen as an Obama program. Indeed the launch of the Crew Dragon is considered a triumph for the former president’s space policy in some quarters, even though commercial spacecraft was a policy first devised by President George W. Bush.
A President Biden could adopt a proposal advanced by former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver to turn the space agency into a climate change agency, an issue that Team Biden cares about far more than it does space exploration. Garver, who would be on a short list to be NASA Administrator in a Biden administration, has no use for NASA’s plan to conduct deep space exploration with human beings. Garver is currently executive director of a climate change organization called the Earthrise Alliance.
Biden, or at least Team Biden’s people, need to enlighten voters about what the former vice president’s space policy would be should he be elected. The voters deserve to know that they have a choice of two very different futures.
The future proposed by President Trump would incorporate the moon and Earth-approaching asteroids into human civilization’s economic sphere of influence. Not only will the frontier of science be expanded, but access to extraterrestrial resources would spark a space-based industrial revolution that could enrich the home planet in ways beyond evaluation. Astronauts would make those first footprints on Mars. Elon Musk’s dream of a settlement on the Red Planet would be closer to reality.
The future that Biden is likely to enable is a turning inward, a retreat from the high frontier, ceding the opportunities it presents to China. China, which seeks to dominate space as much as it seeks to extend control over the Earth, would own the future.
A world without limits vs. one that is very limited indeed. That choice, little remarked upon but very important nevertheless, faces American voters in Election 2020 where space policy is concerned.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.