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Biden administration issues new framework for space policy, with a focus on climate change

However, many priorities are carried over from the previous administration

Vice President Kamala Harris speaking at an event at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on November 5th, 2021
Image: NASA/Taylor Mickal

Today, Vice President Kamala Harris’ office released a new framework for US space policy, detailing how the Biden administration plans to approach commercial, civil, and military space activity moving forward. Called the United States Space Priorities Framework, the document keeps many of the same space priorities from the previous administration but adds a new emphasis on using space to help combat climate change and investing in STEM education.

The new framework comes ahead of today’s National Space Council meeting, the first one to be held under the Biden administration. Harris, who chairs the National Space Council, will convene the policy advisory group at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, at 1:30PM ET today.

The National Space Council is a relic of the George H. W. Bush administration, created by executive order in 1989 with the Vice President at the helm. Made up of executive cabinet members, the NASA administrator, and leaders in the space industry, the council’s goal is to advise on how to set the space agenda and come up with new solutions for addressing current space issues.

The original Space Council was dissolved in 1993, but it was resurrected under the Trump administration and helmed by then-Vice President Mike Pence. During Trump’s presidency, the National Space Council met a total of eight times during live-streamed events in which members shared new concerns and problems that needed to be addressed regarding space. Topics of discussion included: refining launch and licensing regulations for space companies launching rockets and satellites; ways to maintain US leadership and competitiveness in space; strengthening cybersecurity in space; and leveraging lunar resources. These often resulted in a number of Space Policy Directives that Trump would sign throughout his tenure. NASA’s former administrator, Jim Bridenstine, would also give updates on many of NASA’s biggest spaceflight missions, such as the space agency’s Artemis program — aimed at sending the first woman and first person of color to the surface of the Moon.

When it comes to space, the Biden administration is carrying forward many of the priorities set by the Trump administration. Notably, NASA’s ambitious Artemis program, which was solidified under Trump, is still a major focus under Biden. And plenty of the topics discussed under Pence’s Space Council are included in the new framework released by Harris. A few of the key points include maintaining US leadership in space by sending humans back to the Moon and exploring the Solar System with robotic spacecraft, fostering a competitive, regulatory environment for space companies, and defending against security threats in space while strengthening our space assets.

In the biggest break from the previous administration, there looks to be a renewed focus on using space in the fight against climate change. In the new framework, the administration pledges to invest in satellites that can observe Earth from space, helping scientists better understand our changing climate. “Open dissemination of Earth observation data will support both domestic and international efforts to address the climate crisis,” the document states. To further drive home this new emphasis on climate research from space, President Biden plans to sign a new Executive Order today that will add five new members to the National Space Council, including the Secretaries of Education, Labor, Agriculture, and the Interior, but also notably the National Climate Advisor.

The Trump administration, famous for downplaying the urgency of climate change, wasn’t very interested in using space for climate science initiatives, and President Trump’s budget request often tried to cancel various Earth science missions at NASA. Those efforts were mostly unsuccessful, though. Considering that the Biden administration has made tackling climate change one of its top priorities, it’s not surprising that a focus on climate research has been added to the space agenda as well.

Additionally, the Harris framework calls on investing in the next generation through various STEM initiatives. Trump’s budget requests also frequently —and unsuccessfully — tried to get rid of NASA’s Office of Stem Engagement.

The framework is light on details overall, but there are a few specific objectives. For one, it calls for the creation of an open data platform within a US civil agency for hosting space traffic management data to help better understand where satellites are in space. It’s an idea that space industry leaders have brought up before. The Biden administration is also pledging to increase US efforts to combat space debris, which poses a growing threat to satellites. Notably, this pledge comes just two weeks after Russia blew up one of its own satellites in orbit, creating at least 1,700 pieces of trackable debris that posed a threat to the International Space Station.

Otherwise, it’s not particularly clear how the Biden administration plans to achieve all of its goals. But it’s possible there will be more granular discussion during the meeting, which is set to last until 3PM ET. A couple previous Space Council meetings also had some notable theatrics. Pence made a big splash during the administration’s fifth meeting when he very publicly challenged NASA to land humans on the Moon as soon as 2024. Additionally, President Trump made a surprise appearance at one meeting and called on the Department of Defense to establish the Space Force. We’ll find out soon if anything of that nature is in store this afternoon.