by Jeff Foust
A Biden administration is likely to place more emphasis on Earth sciences at NASA and slow down the agency’s plans to return humans to the moon, and do so with a new person at the helm of the agency.
The Biden campaign declared victory in its presidential campaign Nov. 7 after multiple projections that Joe Biden would win Pennsylvania, giving the former vice president more than the 270 electoral votes needed to be elected president. The campaign of President Donald Trump has yet to concede, however.
With its declaration of victory, the Biden campaign has started to roll out its transition plans, including a website that outlines the incoming administration’s four priorities: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.
While the transition site doesn’t explicitly state its plans for NASA, many observers expect it to play a role in that fourth priority, climate change. That stems from a line in the Democratic Party platform from July that states, “Democrats additionally support strengthening NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth observation missions to better understand how climate change is impacting our home planet.”
“Managing the Earth’s ability to sustain human life and biodiversity will likely, in my view, dominate a civil space agenda for a Biden-Harris administration,” said Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator during the Obama administration, in a Nov. 7 speech at the SpaceVision 2020 conference by Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.
Garver, speaking at the conference at the same time Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, gave speeches marking their victory, didn’t predict how the new administration would implement those plans. “NASA is a national asset, and if properly directed and incentivized, we can make meaningful contributions to sustaining humanity,” she said.
Any emphasis on Earth science may come at the expense of the Artemis program. The Democratic platform endorsed “NASA’s work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars, taking the next step in exploring our solar system,” but did not explicitly back the 2024 deadline for returning humans that Vice President Mike Pence announced in March 2019.
“I don’t know anyone who thinks we’re going to get there by 2024,” Garver said. That skepticism, she said, is based on the limited funding allocated for the effort to date, with most of the nearly $30 billion needed to achieve that 2024 goal yet to be spent. “No matter who won, this was going to be an impossible goal.”
Other have raised similar concerns. “While there is a lot of excitement in Congress, there’s not always consensus about when, and what timeframe we should have to meet this Artemis goal,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, in a Nov. 6 speech at a University of Washington conference. Doing so by 2024, she said, “would require an enormous amount of resources.”
“I think the 2024 deadline has always been a little bit iffy, just given the history of large-scale space projects,” said Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, in a session later at the University of Washington conference. “A Biden administration might feel a little bit better about letting that go a little bit.”