U.S. Air Force Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite

U.S. Air Force Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite U.S. Air Force illustration

Don’t Downgrade Space

Moves and hints portend a worrying shifting of priorities under the Biden administration.

Early indications from the Oval Office suggest that the Biden administration places less importance on space policy than did the Trump administration. This is dangerous, and risks squandering momentum in a crucial area of economic and national security importance.

President Biden’s Feb. 4 memorandum on “Renewing the National Security Council System” notably ignores the National Space Council. The consensus among experts is that this memorandum portends the dissolution of the council, whose functions would likely absorbed by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, which the Biden administration has elevated to a cabinet-level position.

This would be a serious misstep. With just five to 10 staff members, the National Space Council is virtually resource-neutral, yet it punches far above its weight by adeptly steering the government’s space policy. At present, OSTP lacks the capacity to absorb these responsibilities. It is deficient in the bandwidth and institutional experience leading these issues. The change would have unintended ripple effects to those policymakers across the government who divine intent from the White House in space planning, acquisition, and implementation programs. Dissolving the National Space Council will have a chilling effect on these professionals, and makes little to no sense from a resource perspective.

This change is likely intended to streamline science and technology initiatives at the White House. It is perhaps the first step towards more aggressively harnessing space resources for climate change initiatives, like Earth observation missions and atmospheric research. The Biden administration also announced the appointment of a Climate Advisor at NASA to “help meet the administration’s goals for addressing climate change.” We can expect to continue seeing space professionals, budgets, and systems refocused away from extraplanetary research and discovery and towards climate observation.

However, re-orienting space assets and the already minuscule budget for existing space programs towards climate change initiatives would be another serious misstep. As it stands, the NASA, the U.S. Space Force, and other key space stakeholders compete for meager resources. NASA’s 2021 budget, for example, is just over $25 billion, representing less than half a percent of the total federal budget. Trying to parse their mission even further risks dangerous neglect of existing endeavors, like the Artemis program that the Biden administration has fully committed to. All told, and without a National Space Council to work through these resource and budgetary trade-offs, there is grave risk of spreading too thin. 

President Biden’s memo also asserts the administration’s intent to replace and discontinue Space Policy Directives as instruments for communicating presidential decisions. This is further cause for concern. Space Policy Directives meet the moment of rapid innovation and exploration in space. They deliver marching orders to the National Space Council and its stakeholders outside of National Security Memoranda dictated by the National Security Council, so as to not subject space policy to cumbersome bureaucratic wrangling and allow for agile decision-making in a unique channel. During the last administration, Space Policy Directives were the vehicles for communicating major Presidential policy decisions, such as the birth of the Space Force, the re-energizing of our space exploration program, and guidance for nuclear power and space. This created a direct line of communication and action from the President, through the Space Council, to the key entities and government and industry. It is unclear why the Biden administration would feel the need to re-subjugate these processes to the traditional, bureaucratic lanes of government policymaking.

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White House-level neglect or deceleration over the next four years poses an unacceptable risk to the visionary path laid for our nation. After almost 25 years of government underestimation, our nation saw a resurgence of space priority comparable only to the Apollo era of President Kennedy. This started four years ago with the rebirth of the National Space Council in the Executive Office of the President, continued with the advancement of NASA’s Artemis program to return Americans to the moon, and included the creation of the U.S. Space Force.

The Biden administration has an unmistakable opportunity: preserve White House focus on space and, in so doing, maintain our nation’s military superiority, protect economic freedom in an industry soon to exceed $1 trillion, and enable a technological platform to allow our nation to strategically compete into the next century. In addition, space capabilities also address other key Biden administration priorities such as climate change. 

The best way to do all this: keep the National Space Council, build out the United States Space Force, and energize the thousands of space professionals throughout the government who remain the engine behind the remarkable efforts and outreach of the last few years. All that is necessary to do the right thing—to do no harm. Allow the work already underway to continue. Doing so recognizes the unique opportunity to seize a critical moment and a moment that is both apolitical and inextricably linked to the American way of life in the 21st century.

Dan Tomanelli is a former Advisor for Space Policy to Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, and a former Associate Director for Defense Policy and Strategy at the National Security Council in the Trump Administration.