Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Halting or Reversing Trump-Era NASA Programs in a New Administration

While space policy was not a hot-button issue in the 2020 election, space has been a realm of pride for President Trump. His administration has actively engaged in space policy over the last four years: issuing five space policy directives, standing up the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command, and starting an ambitious new exploration program at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 

With a change in administration, the future of these programs is up in the air. At this time, relatively little is known about President-elect Joseph Biden’s plans for space, as his team has yet to release a detailed space policy. All that can be assessed for space policy is the Democratic party platform, which describes continued support for NASA and its space exploration and discovery goals. The platform also places concentration on climate change research for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a notable shift from the Trump administration strategy. 

There has been a long history of change in NASA programs and goals when a new president takes office. This change in strategy often hurts NASA, as the organization loses time, money, and direction when a program is cancelled or redirected every four or eight years. While support for climate change research is necessary, this possible shift could take attention and funding away from current NASA programs trying to get off the ground. There are two primary Trump-era developments that should continue to be built upon: the Artemis program and the recent renewed focus on commercial low-Earth orbit (LEO) activities. Overturning these NASA programs that have been shaped during the Trump presidency would be a bad idea for the Biden administration.

The Value of the Artemis Program

One of Trump’s first space policy decisions in 2017 that had a major effect on U.S. civil space strategy was Space Policy Directive-1. SPD-1 was an amendment of Obama’s Presidential Policy 4 and directed the U.S. to return humans to the Moon. This modification directed the focus of resources on long-term exploration and utilization of the Moon, which will subsequently help organize future human missions to Mars. Under SPD-1, NASA began the Artemis program, which aims to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon and is described by NASA as the first step in the next era of space exploration. Through Artemis, NASA plans to work with commercial and international partners to send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024.

To accompany the Artemis program, NASA has announced plans for an outpost orbiting the Moon called the Gateway: a destination for astronaut expeditions and science investigations that will also serve as a port for deep space transportation such as landers docking en route to the lunar surface or spacecraft embarking to destinations beyond the Moon. The Gateway will be an integral part of Artemis and future Mars missions as a staging point for astronauts and materials alike. And NASA doesn’t plan on getting there alone: the European Space Agency has signed on to contribute habitation, refueling modules, and enhanced lunar communications for the Gateway. Other countries, including Russia and Japan, have expressed interest in contributing as well. With international momentum building, it would be foolish to decrease commitment or funding to this program integral to the future of space exploration. 

One of the biggest champions of the Artemis program is current NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who has strongly advocated for collaborating with international partners and has debuted the Artemis Accords — a set of guidelines for international cooperation in this next planned era of space exploration. However, Bridenstine has made it clear that he will leave the organization after Biden’s inauguration, which means there will inevitably be change at NASA that could potentially impact the progress of Artemis. Biden’s pick for NASA Administrator will likely set the tone for the success and schedule of the Artemis program. In fact, Artemis’ ambitious goal of landing the next man and first woman on the Moon by 2024 is at risk, as NASA has struggled to secure full funding from Congress for the program. Continued delays or redistribution in NASA funding will force the proposed 2024 date back, but NASA still should not lose focus on this goal that so many international partners have already joined, and should push through potential setbacks

The Benefits of Commercial Development in LEO

In addition to the Artemis program, NASA has made strides in continuing the development of commercial activities in low-earth orbit (LEO). This initiative took off in 2019 with the opening of the International Space Station (ISS) for commercial research and development activities. An additional recent success of NASA’s commercial partnership is the Commercial Crew Program, in which Boeing and SpaceX have partnered with NASA to provide launch vehicles for astronauts. The year 2020 saw the first two of these historic space launches, which delivered two astronauts to the ISS in May and another four in November. Also included in the Commercial Crew Program is the approval of up to two private astronaut missions to the ISS each year. These commercial astronaut missions have been identified by NASA as necessary to introduce commercial companies to the platform, reduce market risk, and expand the range of activities that can be performed on the ISS. 

NASA has also approved 5 percent of U.S. ISS resources for use on commercial projects to jump-start the development of a sustainable LEO economy. One example is a recent partnership with Estée Lauder, which has sent beauty products to the ISS to be photographed for use in marketing campaigns. Partnering with commercial companies allows NASA to leverage commercial space investments and promote innovation in the private sector. In return, NASA has created an expanding range of opportunities to bring in program funding. NASA must continue to pave the way through programming and funding for a growing LEO economy so that smaller space companies can engage and grow the sector. 

If a Biden administration were to dismantle support for NASA’s Artemis program or the commercialization of LEO, much progress would be lost. Because of long lead times for most space programs, civil space policy benefits from bipartisan support to build on the programs of the past. The Biden administration should look to where they can build on NASA’s ongoing progress, because halting or redirecting these current space programs would be a very bad idea. 

CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views expressed above should be understood to be solely those of the author.

(Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dalton Williams)

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