How will Biden’s Afghanistan debacle impact NASA’s Artemis return to the moon?
The chaos that erupted in Afghanistan following President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of troops should have nothing to do with NASA’s Artemis return to the moon program. The two would not seem to be linked in any way. However, considering that Biden seems to have immolated his presidency by his Afghan retreat, his ability to affect anything, not to mention America’s renewed effort to return to the moon, is in question.
An active presidency can help to ensure the success of a project such as Artemis. Both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson worked tirelessly to keep the Apollo program on track. President Jimmy Carter intervened to save the space shuttle. President Bill Clinton rescued the space station from certain cancellations at a crucial time. Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine once suggested that during the Trump presidency then-Vice President Mike Pence could be counted upon to intervene when the space agency’s budget was in trouble in Congress.
On the flip side, after President George W. Bush announced the Constellation program, he did not mention it again. The second attempt to return to the moon went off the rails only to be canceled by President Barack Obama. Neglect or even active hostility toward a high-profile space program can mean its death.
No one is going to do anything just because Biden wants it to happen. Afghanistan has called into question — even to his erstwhile friends — his ability to make sound decisions. Biden’s continued zombie presidency is likely to be a detriment to getting more funding for NASA, expanding and strengthening the Artemis Alliance, and keeping the return to the moon on schedule.
That is not to say that Artemis is doomed. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator, has a lot of respect in Congress on both sides of the aisle. He is a politician of some experience. Nelson was hired because he was a politician.
Bridenstine and former NASA administrator, astronaut, and Marine Gen. Charles Bolden can be counted on to support Nelson, as was promised during the Florida Democrat’s swearing-in ceremony. Together they constitute a space triumvirate as powerful, in its own way, as any that ruled ancient Rome.
As an added note, perhaps Bridenstine or Bolden could be named as a special envoy for space. If John Kerry can jet around the world whipping up climate change policy, a more respected public servant could do the same, but to expand the Artemis Alliance and to buttress international space cooperation.
Speaking of aerospace professionals, Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator in charge of human space flight, is experienced and well respected. Her management skills were crucial in getting the commercial crew program off the ground.
One cannot forget that SpaceX’s Elon Musk has been charged with developing the Human Landing System (HLS) to take Americans down to the lunar surface. His record in making technological miracles is well documented. The only thing standing in Musk’s way is an absurd lawsuit filed by his main rival, Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos.
The fact that Artemis enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, with the exception of the Sen. Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, cannot be discounted, either. Nelson and company need not spend a lot of time selling the concept of Artemis. They will still have to work to see it adequately funded and to head off attempts to micromanage the program, such as undertaken by former Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.).
In short, the Artemis program is likely to survive and even thrive despite Biden. Certainly, having someone with more energy and competence in the White House, who could weigh in from time to time to support the most important space project since the Apollo program, would have been better. But that role will be reserved for the president due to be elected in 2024, whoever he or she happens to be.
As for Biden, the best that can be expected will be for him to stay out of the way and let Artemis proceed. He might be tempted to try to use the Artemis program to distract from the debacle in Afghanistan. History suggests that he will only mess that one up, too.
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,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” 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.