2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump’s NASA moon program

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Call it a triumph of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s relentless bipartisan approach to space policy. In any case, those who support the space agency’s Artemis back-to-the-moon program have found encouragement in the space plank of the Democratic Party’s draft platform for 2020.

“We support NASA’s work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars, taking the next step in exploring our solar system.”

The statement is tucked into the section called “Investing in the Engines of Job Creation.” The NASA paragraph also supports the International Space Station (ISS), research, development and exploration in general and Earth science.

The Democrats’ implicit support for Project Artemis represents a break from President Barack Obama’s space program that mocked the very idea of going back to the moon. The draft platform also rejects an idea by former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver to turn the space agency into a climate change agency, which would have ended the Artemis program. As far as the paragraph goes, the Democrats have endorsed the Trump space policy.

Some details are lacking. No mention is made of commercial involvement in either resupplying the ISS or landing Americans on the moon. House Democrats have advanced a bill that rejects NASA’s idea of procuring lunar landers commercially. They are also trying to foreclose the notion of a permanent lunar base, the use of the moon’s resources and, indeed, any lunar surface activities not related to practicing for a human mission to Mars.

The NASA paragraph is also silent about when Americans will return to the moon. NASA and the Trump administration are planning to land the “first woman and the next man” on the lunar surface by 2024, the theory being that the sooner the thing is done, the more momentum can be created to make Artemis sustainable. House Democrats have thus far refused to appropriate enough money to make the 2024 date happen, the idea being that it would represent a triumphal close to a hypothetical second Trump term. Of course, if Biden is elected president, that objection would likely go away. President Biden — not Trump — would be at the Kennedy Space Center to send off the Artemis astronauts in 2024.

A caveat is necessary when trying to telescope what a Biden space policy would be like should the former vice president be elected. Few presidential candidates have campaigned on a space policy that they later implemented once they were elected. Barack Obama did not promise that he would cancel President George W. Bush’s Constellation back-to-the-moon program. Donald Trump did not mention in 2016 that he would restore the moon as a goal for NASA space exploration. Indeed, John F. Kennedy did not mention the idea of a race to the moon by the end of the 1960s when he ran for president.

As a rule, space has not been a major issue in presidential political contests. Indeed, it has rarely been an issue in down-ballot races. A conspicuous exception to that occurred in 2018, when Lizzie Fletcher defeated then-Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) by mocking his support for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. However, considering the increasing importance that space has for America’s economy and national security, that situation ought to change.

Whoever is handling former Vice President Biden’s space policy should write a speech and have the candidate deliver it from his basement refuge setting out what NASA would do were he to be elected. Will he support commercial space, including the acquisition of lunar landers? Will Biden support an expanding lunar base as a center of science and commerce, as well as a practice ground for Mars? Will the former vice president commit to spending enough money to return to the moon sooner rather than later?

Biden might also commit to asking Jim Bridenstine to stay on as NASA administrator. Bridenstine had to endure a contentious confirmation process when he was first nominated by President Trump. Since he was confirmed, Bridenstine has won over many of his opponents and has proven to be wildly popular on both sides of the aisle.

Continuity has been a constant problem where space exploration is concerned. President George H. W. Bush proposed the Space Exploration Initiative only to see it cancelled by President Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush proposed the Constellation program only to see it canceled by President Barack Obama. Win or lose, Joe Biden could do his country an immense service and pledge that the start/stop pattern for space exploration programs would end with him.

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.

Tags Artemis Artemis program Barack Obama Bill Clinton Democrats' space plan Donald Trump Jim Bridenstine Joe Biden John Culberson Lori Garver NASA Space exploration space platform Space policy Trump administration

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