- Status Report
- August 12, 2022
So … What About NASA And Joe Biden?
A little-known Trump appointee is in charge of handing transition resources to Biden — and she isn’t budging, Washington Post
“No agency head is going to get out in front of the president on transition issues right now,” said one senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The official predicted that agency heads will be told not to talk to the Biden team.”
Keith’s note: The following is based on what I have heard, and what I can surmise as being representative of what you can expect from the incoming Biden-Harris Administration. As for who the next NASA Adminstrator will be: pick a name. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.
One of the top priorities listed by the Biden-Harris Transition Team is Climate Change . While climate science/ Earth science is not explicitly mentioned, understanding how our planet’s climate is changing is at the top of the list of science priorities for agencies such as NASA and NOAA. And the Biden folks like to use that word “science”. How the Transition Team conducts itself will be guided by a Code of Ethical Conduct and Ethics Plan. We’ll just have to wait and see if the Trump Administration allows a professional level of cooperation during the transition – or not. FWIW I do not sense that the Biden folks have any plans to blow anything up or make dramatic changes. So everyone reading this should chill out a bit. (See “Draft 2020 Democratic Party Platform Statement On Space“)
We’ll all get an idea as to how the transition is going to go tomorrow when the Biden Team names their COVID-19 task force. The obvious question be asked by the media is whether this august group of experts has – or will – even be allowed to talk to people at NIH, CDC, FDA, etc. so as to best understand the state of play for the pandemic and to line up their plan with what is or is not being done. Whether or not transition activities can proceed depends on whether the GSA says that they can. So far they are not giving the go ahead (as noted above). And the White House has not even admitted that the Biden-Harris team won the election. So … if the Administration wants to allow roadblocks to prevent efforts to address the pandemic to proceed, trivial matters such as NASA are certainly not going to get any attention.
With regard to Transition Teams, every new Administration has their own way of doing things. Some are more organized than others. The Obama Transition Team was organized and had people in place on inauguration Day. Had Hillary Clinton won in 2016 they had a team with tickets to place them at National Airport on the day after election day and had planned to wrap up their activities by Thanksgiving 2016.
The Trump Transition Team was a mess. They had not expected to win so they stumbled around when they did. Eventually a bunch of people – many of them from the campaign – were part of a “landing Party” that parachuted into NASA. None of them had a plan. In short order they started to compete internally and stab each other in the back. Then, one after another, they were ejected from NASA. To his credit Robert Lightfoot held things together until Jim Bridenstine arrived.
Eventually the National Space Council was re-created along with the User’s Advisory Group. Both entities were stacked with political members and pro forma agency and industry members – many of whom did zero work and provided no real value other than attending staged public events and rubber stamping decisions already made elsewhere. What was actually accomplished by the National Space Council (and there was a lot) was due almost exclusively to the determined and dedicated efforts of Scott Pace and his staff – with the full support of Vice President Pence.
As to what lies ahead – stay tuned. Whether or not there will continue to be a National Space Council is not clear. The National Space Council is enabled by law – but not required by law. Indeed, the nation functioned for decades without a National Space Council.
As for NASA’s existing programs, the usual reflex with a new Administration is to set up a Blue Ribbon panel and study things for 8 months and kick the can down the road. Given that NASA is poised to embark on a lot of hardware it is likely that a more expedient review will be done. It is highly probable that there will be an enhanced focus on science at NASA – especially with regard to Earth science as it relates to expressed intentions by the Biden Team to deal with climate change. You may see some delayed or cancelled missions due to actions by the Trump Administration brought back to live – plus some new ones.
Nothing has yet appeared to suggest that the Biden Administration is hostile toward the Artemis Program to land humans on the Moon – or send humans to Mars. However, given delays with SLS and budgetary issues it is probable that the 2024 lunar landing date imposed by Vice President Pence will be pushed back a few years. One should expect that a hard look will be made as to whether the “program of record” for Artemis using SLS, Orion, Gateway etc. is the desired path or whether an alternate plan – perhaps one using much more in the way of commercial options, would work better.
As for Space Force, there will likely be a review of progress made thus far and an assessment made as to whether the rapidly expanding infrastructure of the Space Force enables or hinders the ability of the U.S. to coordinate its defense efforts in space. There is also the issue seen by many that Space Force seems to feel that it is competing with NASA to do things that NASA is supposed to do. This is not only beyond the scope of their charter, it is also duplicative and redundant.
As for NASA’s biggest project, there are a lot of people who want to drive a stake through the heart of SLS. Well, NASA is about to fire its engines for the first time, so the thing is real. Get over it. Building more of them is vastly cheaper than the process of designing the rocket in the first place. To walk away from billions in sunk costs and more than a decade of development would certainly cause critics of NASA to wonder if the agency can or should do things like this ever again.
But more importantly, with the U.S. in the midst of a worsening pandemic and an associated economic downturn, you should assume that the Biden Administration is not going to be especially interested in putting more people out of work. As such you might see a compromise: perhaps a block buy of 5 or 6 SLS block 1 rockets (no EUS) to do space science missions or one-off heavy lift missions thus keeping the assembly lines open. Meanwhile NASA might pivot to more commercial options which will keep other production lines open while holding down costs. The upcoming SLS Green Run and SpaceX Starship tests will certainly have an impact on these considerations.
With regard to NASA’s broader role as one agency among many within the Federal Government, you will no doubt see an impact of the new Administration’s broader themes. With a teacher as First Lady it is highly likely that the Trump Administration’s attempts to eliminate funding for education at NASA will be halted, reversed, and funding increased beyond prior levels. And sources report that Vice President-elect Harris is a total Star Trek fan.
With the implementation of the Biden Administration’s theme of “Build Back Better” you will likely see all government agencies called upon to look for ways to deal with the pandemic, the economic downturn, infrastructural issues, and, to put it bluntly – the callous – sometimes hostile – indifference that the Trump Administration showed toward various sectors of our society.
In other words, NASA will likely be called upon to be more relevant to the nation than it has been in a long time. And when I say relevant, I do not mean what NASA thinks is relevant or what space fans think is relevant. Rather, it is what the 300 million or so people who pay for the party deem to be relevant. This may well be NASA’s greatest challenge in the years ahead.