Seeing a new side of Kamala Harris at National Space Council

Vice President Harris recently conducted the first meeting of the National Space Council (NSC) of the Joe Biden presidency, and she handled it with competence and efficiency. It was a far departure from the vice president’s recent cringeworthy video touting space exploration for the next generation, which featured child actors.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) a former astronaut, introduced the vice president. Kelly, who faces a tough reelection race in 2022, looked forward to the day when “the first American woman and the first American of color” would walk on the moon. Just over a year ago, during the 2020 campaign, Kelly attacked the idea of returning to the moon. The difference is that Project Artemis was former President Trump’s program in 2020. Now, Artemis has been adopted in full by the Biden administration. Kelly, loyal Democratic Party man that he is, has fallen in line.

Harris made the initial remarks, setting out the meeting’s agenda in clear terms — and might boost her currently abysmal approval rating if more people saw this side of her.

The National Space Council meeting discussed three issues concerning space policy. The issues were establishing rules and regulations for space operations, how space could benefit the fight against climate change, and how interest in space could encourage more young people to follow studies in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

The need to establish a system of rules and regulations for space operations was thrown into high prominence by the reckless ASAT test recently conducted by Russia that created a cloud of space debris. The Biden administration intends to pursue a diplomatic solution, perhaps a treaty banning such space weapons. Interestingly, the current administration is still building on the Trump-era Artemis accords. Harris suggested that France and Mexico may become the latest signatories.

The role of space in battling climate change was the second topic. The Biden administration’s enthusiasm for solving the problems inherent in human-caused climate change has proved to be controversial, as anyone who has seen a utility bill or filled their gas tanks can attest to. The roles of NASA and sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) in dealing with the phenomenon are not at issue since NOAA is restricted to gathering data through Earth observation satellites.

The meeting concluded with a discussion of the role space plays in STEM education. The idea that exploring space can serve to inspire the young to become scientists and engineers, thus benefiting the United States, is as old as the space age itself. Space has a coolness factor that, in the view of some, should motivate students to study the difficult subjects of STEM. Interestingly, the fact that space also provides opportunities to blue-collar workers, such as welders and electricians, received mention.

The first meeting of the National Space Council of the Biden era was accompanied by the release of a document called the United States Space Priorities Framework. With the exception of the one paragraph covering climate change, the document could have been issued by the Trump administration. It represents a welcome example of continuality between presidencies of two different political parties.

While the Biden administration has arguably gotten off to a rocky start, the NSC meeting and the space priorities document demonstrate, space policy is proving to be a bright spot for the current president and vice president — albeit one that is not being well covered by the media.

Harris has gotten bad marks for gaffes since taking office. However, if she can replicate what she did at the National Space Council meeting in other venues, she may yet recover.

One problem not covered by the meeting is Congress’s underfunding of both the Human Landing System and the commercial space stations that should follow the International Space Station. If Harris, a former senator, can sway Congress to appropriate more money for these and other programs, she will have a success that will redound for her political standing.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Mark Kelly Mark R. Whittington NASA National Space Council NOAA Space vice president

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