First Meeting of the National Space Council

On Wednesday, Vice President Harris chaired the Biden administration’s first meeting of the National Space Council, in which she outlined the United States’ attitude toward civil, commercial and military space policy. In essence, she took a pragmatic, human-centered approach that looks back at Earth from space, and not the other way around. Let’s take a look.

[Clip, 26:12 – 26:47] “In this new era, we must see all the ways in which space can benefit Earth. We must see all the ways in which space can benefit the people of our nation, and of all humanity. This perspective is central to our work as a council, because while exploration of space defined the 20th century, the opportunity of space must guide our work in the 21st.”

The council focused on three areas of opportunity in its Space Priorities Framework: First, building the STEM workforce, second, addressing the climate crisis, and third, promoting rules and norms to govern space. Except for the emphasis on climate change and STEM, many of the document’s priorities are carried over from the previous administration. There isn’t much to compare it to before that, since the first National Space Council lasted from 1989 to 1993, only to be disbanded and then reconvened under the Trump White House.

A persistent focus of U.S. space policy is on maintaining the country’s competitive edge and shaping a space environment friendly to American national security and private industry. During the Council meeting, Harris repeatedly condemned Russia’s recent anti-satellite missile test, which created 1,500 pieces of trackable debris and forced astronauts aboard the ISS to take shelter for two hours in case of a collision.

To combat problems like this, the Space Priorities Framework calls for the creation of an open-data platform within a US civil agency for space traffic management. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also said that his department hopes to propose a new debris mitigation rule under the FAA by next spring.

Another priority is the Artemis Program, set to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2025. Including more countries in the Artemis Accords will be one avenue to bolster international cooperation, and Harris said that France and Mexico plan to join. The administration clearly views some countries, however, as adversaries. In that regard, the framework’s goals include building up the Space Force branch of the military and ramping up competition with Russia and China.

The Biden administration has given special focus to climate change since its inauguration, and it’s no surprise space is being enlisted to help solve the issue. At the Council meeting, national climate advisor Gina McCarthy highlighted the need for scientific research, climate adaptation programs, and continuing government investment in Earth-observing satellites.

Lastly, Biden signed an executive order adding five new members to the National Space Council: the secretaries of education, labor, agriculture, and interior, as well as the national climate adviser. The diversity of departments present on the Council is meant to ensure space benefits all of American society, Harris said.

The White House’s priorities reflect a struggle to balance the need for cooperation on climate change with the pressure for competition over the space domain. As Russia flexes its anti-satellite capabilities, China develops its hypersonic glide missiles, and both race against the United States for the Moon and Mars, we’ll be watching to see how the world’s space-faring nations respond to one another’s moves.

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