Will Biden continue NASA’s Artemis program to return to the moon?
When President Biden moved into the Oval Office, he made it a point to bring out a moon rock that had been presented to the White House in 1999 in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and to place it on prominent display.
NASA noted that the rock was collected by the astronauts of Apollo 17, the last human expedition to the moon. It was extracted from a large boulder at the base of the North Massif in the Taurus-Littrow Valley. The rock weighs less than a pound and is 3.9 billion years old.
Whether Biden knows it or not, the Oval Office moon rock is pregnant with wistful symbolism. No one has been back to the moon since 1972. Two previous attempts to return humans to the moon, proposed by President George H. W. Bush and then President George W Bush, fell prey to the vagaries of politics. The third attempt, proposed by President Donald Trump, now hangs in the balance. Biden holds the Artemis program, as NASA calls it, in the hollow of his hand.
On the plus side, Artemis is farther along and is on more solid ground than its predecessors were. Actual hardware has been built and is currently being tested that will send astronauts to the moon. Money has been appropriated to acquire a human lunar lander from the commercial sector, much in the same way as the Commercial Crew program has developed spacecraft to take astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.
Moreover, former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine spent his tenure of almost three years building up support for the Artemis program. Funding for the return to the moon program has passed Congress on a bipartisan basis. Moreover, Artemis has been well received in the international community. Canada, the European Union and Japan, among other countries, are falling over themselves for opportunities to participate. A Canadian astronaut has already been slated to fly on Artemis II, a lunar orbital mission.
The benefits of returning to the moon, furthering science, encouraging commercial development, and building political soft power also point toward continuing Artemis. Moreover, China has its own lunar ambitions. China, which has become a rogue nation for its cyber espionage, its imperialist ambitions and its lack of candor about the coronavirus, needs to be taught a lesson about which country is still technologically superior. The United States humbled the Soviet Union with Apollo in the 1960s. The United States and its allies can do the same service to China in the present day.
What will Biden do with the Artemis program that his predecessor bequeathed him? No one seems to have a clue. However, it should be noted that, at least of this writing, Biden has not countermanded any of the executive orders that Trump signed concerning space. Since Biden has been quite prolific in reversing a whole slew of Trump policies related to immigration, energy and other areas, this apparent oversight could be seen as encouraging.
Biden should, sooner rather than later, make some moves that will reassure NASA, the commercial space sector and America’s allies that his administration intends to stay the course where the Artemis program is concerned. He could do this by nominating a candidate for NASA administrator who can commit to seeing Artemis through. One way to make this selection is to find someone from within the space agency to ascend to the top spot. Kathy Lueders, the current NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations comes to mind. She is well respected and most recently brought the commercial crew program to fruition. She is currently engaged in getting Artemis off the ground.
One change that Biden might make concerns the expensive, behind-schedule and increasingly obsolete Space Launch System (SLS). Should he scrap it in favor of commercial alternatives? Or should he press on with making it work?
Biden can use the Artemis program as a way to foster the sense of unity that he mentioned in his inaugural address. Marcia Smith notes that the new chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.) is a warm supporter of Artemis, as is that subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), illustrating the bipartisan support the program enjoys.
Support of Artemis would constitute a win for the nascent Biden administration, as well as the United States and her allies in the international community.
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.
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