Biden's space policies look a lot like Trump's so far

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You probably already know that space, along with science-infused policies, are my wheelhouse. Even though we all love space exploration, from the atmosphere to the moon, to the far-flung worlds beyond, we have to consider space politics, too. So I’m here to offer a few thoughts on the Biden administration’s approach to space so far.

While President Biden’s tone and rhetoric certainly sound little like Trump’s, he’s nonetheless continuing some of his predecessor’s questionable policies. A reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday, March 30, about the president’s space policies. She confirmed that, when it comes to space, Biden has agreed quite a bit with Trump.

Biden’s team has made or attempted major shifts in domestic policies, from climate change to racial justice to labor, but there’s actually quite a bit of continuity in space policy. For example, NASA under Biden is continuing Trump’s moon program, called Artemis — so named to hearken back to the glorious days of Apollo and the original moon landing more than a half century ago. But there is no clearly defined mission. It’s more driven by nostalgia and Trump’s attempt to put American boots on the lunar ground by 2024 — a convenient deadline he hoped would occur during his second term in the White House. Furthermore, work on the Artemis rocket and capsule are behind schedule and over budget. Instead, many experts call for more ambitious goals, focusing on the Mars program.

The Biden administration also continued the National Space Council, formerly led by Mike Pence. The organization’s designed to sound like a collaborative effort to facilitate space exploration, but it actually operates like a Trojan horse for the space industry. Companies like SpaceX, Planet, and Blue Origin surely have a big role to play, but they shouldn’t have all the seats at the table. The inevitable outcome is that when it comes to launching rockets, putting spacecraft in orbit, and potential moon colonies, we have few regulations in place. Instead, we have at best, norms, and at worst, a free-for-all. It could result in satellite constellations changing the night sky, or in a higher chance of satellite collisions or conflicts in the atmosphere.

Biden has generally maintained Trump’s view of space as an arena for war. He has continued the Space Force (which I wrote about here), while critics contend that it isn’t necessary and could be perceived as provocative by space rivals like China and Russia and a precursor to a space arms race. Biden has continued many of Trump’s foreign policies on Earth too, including policies friendly to the military industry.

Biden’s space strategy could benefit from more of an emphasis on international diplomacy, cooperation, and international law. More like Star Trek than Star Wars. It means taking advice not just from the military and space industries but also from a wide range of scientists, space lawyers, space peace advocates (for lack of a better term) and space environmentalists (also a new thing) to set clear rules about how people can and can’t use space. That might limit the numbers or kinds of satellites that can be launched or it might limit what kinds of structures can be built or mining can be done on the moon, for example.

We already have signs of a de facto “launch first and ask questions later” strategy in the United States, with Europeans reluctant to disagree. Then what the military and space industries want to do retroactively becomes policy.

But President Biden has shown that, on some policies, he’s willing to listen to critics and adjust his position. There’s still time for change. But today’s decisions about what to do in space matter, and they could have impacts for years to come. (To be continued…I’ll likely write soon about what a better space strategy might look like.)

More about me: I’m an astrophysicist turned writer and freelance journalist based in San Diego. You can find me at my website, and on Twitter @raminskibba. I’m also the former president of the San Diego Science Writers Association (SANDSWA) and on the board of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), though the opinions I express here are mine alone. You’re welcome to share this newsletter, and if you like what you’ve been writing or want to support my work, please consider a paid subscription. Thanks!