Foust Forward | The missing element of the first National Space Council meeting of the Biden administration
If the Biden administration’s space policy has a theme after nearly one year, it’s one of continuity.
The White House has avoided major changes in civil or national security space, keeping in place NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the moon (albeit with delays that were inevitable given available funding and technical issues) as well as the Space Force and other military initiatives, like the Space Development Agency and its pursuit of low Earth orbit constellations.
That continuity was evident in a document the White House released Dec. 2, the “United States Space Priorities Framework.” Many of the priorities described in the seven-page document regarding civil, commercial, and national security space are continuations of policies from the Trump administration and its predecessors. That includes major elements of policy and more minor issues, like setting up a regulatory scheme for non-traditional commercial space markets and increasing the emphasis on planetary defense.
Where the Biden administration has made changes, they have been primarily in the form of additions. When Vice President Kamala Harris confirmed she would chair the National Space Council, she emphasized interest in new priorities, such as climate change — a high priority for the administration overall — as well as STEM education. That was clear in the priorities document, which emphasized the use of space-based data to support action on climate change and investing in STEM education.
The additions include the roster of the council itself. At the administration’s first National Space Council meeting Dec. 2, Harris formally welcomed the Secretaries of Agriculture, Education, the Interior and Labor to the council, along with the National Climate Adviser. Two of the three panel discussions at the meeting involved those new members and priorities, with the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, and the climate adviser, discussing space and the climate crisis, while the Secretaries of Education and Labor participated in a discussion on STEM education.
The meeting itself looked much like those in the Trump administration, with opening remarks from the vice president and panel discussions (the third, on space sustainability, got most of the attention given the recent Russian ASAT test.) By the end of the meeting, all the members of the council had spoken, and many got homework assignments from Harris to pursue work on space sustainability, climate, and education issues.
There was, though, a missing element to this meeting: the space industry. In the previous administration, council meetings included panel discussions with outside witnesses, including company executives. At this meeting, though, the panels consisted exclusively of council members themselves. Industry was even excluded from the audience at the meeting, held in the atrium of the U.S. Institute of Peace near the State Department, with the room filled instead with government officials.
Executives consoled themselves at a reception that evening at a downtown Washington hotel organized by several industry groups. They said privately they had no complaints about the priorities of the space council but regretted being left out of the meeting if, for no other reason, to show their support for those efforts. (The relatively small size of the room might have been one reason for them to be excluded, but there are plenty of larger venues in Washington.)
Industry is also keeping an eye on changes to the council’s Users’ Advisory Group. At the council meeting, the group’s chairman, James Ellis, recapped its past work but didn’t discuss future work. The White House solicited nominations for new members of the group this fall but has yet to announce new members.
Refreshing the Users’ Advisory Group is a good idea, particularly if it brings in more actual users of space capabilities rather than just the companies that provide those capabilities. Keeping industry involved is also key to ensuring they have a voice in how those policy priorities are implemented and winning their support when those policies require new legislation and funding.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the December 2021 issue.