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From Moon to Earth: How the Biden Administration Can Transform NASA

NASA Vice President Jim Morhard may have had one of the more underrated public reactions to the outcome of the presidential election.

“It’s a very mild day for everyone,” he said at the start of a November 7 presentation to the Space Generation Advisory Council’s SpaceGen Summit, just three hours after a series of media projections, from The Associated Press to Fox News. Joe Biden wins. He did not elaborate on this comment and dived into his previously planned conversation about the agency’s activities.

Whether the result led to excitement or disappointment, the choice of Joe Biden has left the space industry and wonders what comes next. While Biden is a well-known figure in politics, his views on space and his plans for NASA are far less clear after decades in the Senate and eight years as Barack Obama̵

7;s vice president.


The Biden campaign said almost nothing about space during the White House, except for a few statements congratulating NASA on the successful launch and return of the Demo-2 commercial crew mission this summer. “As president, I look forward to leading a bold space program that will continue to send astronaut heroes to expand our exploration and scientific frontiers through investment in research and technology to help millions of people here on Earth,” he said in one of these statements. . .

“One of the things that I found surprising is that the Biden campaign did not issue a space policy statement,” said John Logsdon, founder and former director of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. “So we are left with the Democratic Party platform said.”

This platform included a section on space, which Logsdon considered “very positive”, if not without much detail. The platform broadly endorsed much of what NASA is currently doing, from science and technology development to the continued operation of the International Space Station and the exploration of human space.

Most in the aerospace industry who read this passage removed two major changes that a Biden administration would pursue. The platform mentions “strengthening” Earth observation programs at both NASA and NOAA “to better understand how climate change is affecting our home planet.” It fits in with a broader interest in climate change, which is one of four priorities identified by the forthcoming Biden administration along with COVID-19, economic recovery and racial justice.

“Managing the Earth’s ability to sustain human life and biodiversity will, in my opinion, probably dominate a civilian agenda for a Biden-Harris administration,” predicted Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy director under the Obama administration during a Nov. 7 conference. speech at the SpaceVision 2020 conference of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

Biden’s focus on climate change does not bode well for putting NASA’s underfunded Human Landing System back on track to reach the moon in 2024, a Trump mandate that few took literally. Credit: NASA Illustration

Exactly how this will be implemented is unclear. One option would be to speed up the implementation of the Earth science decadal survey, albeit with additional funding. “NASA is a national asset, and if properly addressed and encouraged, we can make meaningful contributions to sustaining humanity,” Garver said.

The second change is in human space research. While the platform stated that the party supported “NASA’s work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond Mars,” it did not mention a date for doing so, especially the 2024 date set by the Trump administration last year. This led to speculation that the Biden administration will at least slow down the Artemis program and possibly free up money for soil science and other priorities elsewhere in the agency.

“I do not think Artemis will be annulled. I also do not think it will get more money than it currently does, ”said Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, whose research includes space policy.

A human lunar landing from 2024 could possibly be ruled out, even before Biden is sworn in on January 20th. NASA’s Budget Proposal 2021 budget proposal requested $ 3.2 billion for the Human Landing System (HLS) program to develop the landers needed to transport astronauts to and from the surface of the moon. However, the house only provided about $ 600 million to HLS in an expense bill it passed in July.

While NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine publicly thanked Parliament for giving at least some money to HLS, he lobbied the Senate for full funding to hold a 2024 landing on time. “Accelerating it to 2024 requires a $ 3.2 billion budget by 2021 for the Human Landing System, which is in the president’s budget request,” he told the Senate in September.

These appropriations released their draft expenditure accounts on 10 November, which will serve as a basis for negotiations with Parliament on a final version. To NASA, they delivered 1 billion. Dollars for the HLS program, more than Parliament, but still far from the budget request. In the report accompanying the bill, the Senate’s appropriations noted the uncertainty surrounding the program “makes it difficult to analyze the future effects that the financing of the accelerated lunar mission will have on NASA’s other important missions.”

The HLS funding was only an obstacle to a human landing from 2024 identified in a report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General on November 12, which discussed the agency’s biggest challenges and also cited delays in the Space Launch System and Orion. It concluded that NASA “will be hard pressed to land astronauts on the Moon by the end of 2024.”

“I know no one who thinks we’ll get there by 2024,” Garver said. “No matter who won, this would be an impossible goal.”


While the incoming administration’s plans for NASA are not secure, it is working quickly on this transition. On November 10, it announced the list of the agency’s review team or transition team that will blow over the federal government to gather information to manage the new administration’s planning.

“The transition teams are really coming in to see how it goes and make recommendations for the future,” said Garver, who led NASA’s transition team for the upcoming Obama administration in 2008.

The agency’s review team for NASA is filled with people who either worked for the agency or are otherwise very familiar with it. Leading the team is Ellen Stofan, a planetary scientist who served as NASA’s chief scientist during the Obama administration and is now director of the National Air and Space Museum. Waleed Abdalati, her predecessor as NASA chief scientist, is also on the team. He co-chaired the latest study of decadal in geoscience.

Others have a range of NASA experiences. Pam Melroy is a former NASA astronaut who flew on three shuttle missions and later worked at the FAA’s commercial space office and at DARPA. Dave Noble, Shannon Valley, and David Weaver all held political and communications positions at NASA under the Obama administration; Valley is also a climate scientist.

Bhavya Lal, a researcher at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, has studied a wide range of space-related topics for NASA and other government agencies. Jedidah Isler, an assistant professor at Dartmouth, has not previously worked for NASA, but her research in astrophysics complements the scientific backgrounds of other team members.

When the team can start working, however, is not clear. The Trump administration has been slow to acknowledge Biden’s victory, and the head of the General Services Administration, which controls the resources for the presidential election, has not yet released those resources for the Biden transition. NASA officials did not respond to questions on Nov. 12 about whether they had begun discussions with the agency’s audit team or what guidance it had received from the White House to support the transition.


Another priority for the Biden transition is choosing a new NASA administrator. Despite being confirmed by a close party line in the Senate in April 2018, Bridenstine had won congressional members on both sides of the aisle for his leadership of the agency. Some in the space community hoped that even in the event of a Biden victory, Bridenstine could be held on.

However, Bridenstine plans to leave the agency at the end of the Trump administration and tells Aerospace Daily that he “would not be the right person” to head the agency in a Biden administration. President-elect Biden’s NASA transition team The NASA administrator said he needed a “close relationship” with the White House, something he, a former Republican congressman, lacked.

While the Biden transition has been quiet about the election of a new administrator, there has been plenty of speculation going back long before the election about potential candidates for the job. This list is dominated by women like Melroy, the former astronaut in the transition team. Others include Wanda Austin, former president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation; Gretchen McClain, a former NASA official who later worked in the industry and sits on the boards of several companies, such as Booz Allen Hamilton; and Wanda Sigur, former vice president and general manager of civil space at Lockheed Martin.

Another option is rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), Who lost her bid for another term in the November election. Horn chairs the House Science subcommittee and has expressed skepticism about aspects of the Artemis program, including NASA’s ability to achieve a 2024 landing.

When a new administrator will take over is not clear, but experience suggests that it may be months after the inauguration day. The Obama administration first nominated Charlie Bolden as administrator (and Garver as deputy administrator) until May 2009; The Senate confirmed them in July. Bridenstine, despite being a top candidate for NASA administrator days after Trump won the 2016 election, was not nominated until early September 2017.

Morhard, the current deputy administrator, is also likely to deviate, something he quietly acknowledged in his SpaceGen summit conversation hours after Biden won. “Things are changing in the United States, we know that,” he said. “I certainly look forward to the future and what comes next.”

This article originally appeared in the November 16, 2020 issue of SpaceNews.

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