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Harris to lead her first National Space Council meeting Wed

Vice President Kamala Harris will host her first meeting as chair of the National Space Council (NSpC) on Wednesday, the first gathering of the group in nearly a year and one that comes amid a new era of commercial spaceflight and security concerns about Russia and China’s own ambitions beyond Earth’s atmosphere.


What You Need To Know

  • Vice President Kamala Harris will host her first meeting as chair of the National Space Council on Wednesday, the first gathering of the group in nearly a year
  • It comes amid a new era of commercial spaceflight and security concerns about Russia and China’s own ambitions beyond Earth’s atmosphere
  • The Biden administration in March announced it would maintain the council, which was revived in 2017 under then-president Donald Trump and chaired by former vice president Mike Pence
  • Space policy priorities are expected to remain similar under the Biden administration, but Harris will likely put more emphasis on diversity, STEM education and sustainability 

The Biden administration in March announced it would maintain the council, which was revived in 2017 under then-president Donald Trump and chaired by vice president Mike Pence, who hosted eight meetings over the course of his term and was heavily involved in the project. The council includes cabinet secretaries plus U.S. space, commerce, defense, intelligence and security officials.

The meeting led by Harris on Wednesday afternoon is expected to build on many of the space policy goals of the Trump administration, which were last published in 2020 and included a boost in commercial space exploration, greater international cooperation and the creation of a sustained human presence on the moon.

“There’ll be quite a bit of overlap,” said Eric Stallmer, who oversees government affairs for Voyager Space Holdings and also serves on the space council’s advisory group.

“The administration realizes that some of those policy directives were needed, and they were well thought out, and they’ll probably keep those.”

In his final NSpC meeting, Pence announced the 18-astronaut team for the Artemis Program, which aims to put people back on the moon, an ambitious goal he challenged NASA to complete by 2024 and one Harris could mention on Wednesday.

 

Vice President Mike Pence, far left, introduces five of the astronauts that will be part of the Atremis missions, from left, Jessica Meir, Joe Acaba, Anne McClain, Matthew Dominick, and Jessica Watkins during the eighth meeting of the National Space Council at the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, in Cape Canaveral , Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

 

But the vice president is also expected to put additional emphasis on STEM education, diversity and the ways that space can inform the study of climate change across the planet.

She first previewed the meeting in a visit to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in early November.

“We will outline a comprehensive framework for our nation’s space priorities — from our civilian efforts … to our military and national security efforts; to STEM education; and the emerging space economy,” the vice president said. “When it comes to our space activity, there is limitless potential.”

Harris’s two other core assignments from the president — addressing the root causes of migration at the border and overseeing the push for voting rights — have proven difficult to unsnarl.

The National Space Council includes top officials like the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, transportation and energy plus the national security advisor, director of national intelligence and NASA administrator, among other top White House advisors.

“The space council is, in a sense, everyone who has a stake in space,” said Dean Cheng, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and expert on China’s military and space capabilities.

“Space touches everything,” said Cheng, who is also a member of the space council’s advisory group.

GPS satellites, for example, play a key role in tracking shipping containers around the world and at ports, which is currently critical amid ongoing supply chain issues.

Wednesday’s meeting also comes as both Russia and China are also developing their own ambitions beyond the planet, putting national security top of mind for the council as Harris steps in.

In mid-November, a Russian anti-satellite missile test sent thousands of pieces of debris close to the International Space Station, endangering the astronauts working there in a move the U.S. called “dangerous and irresponsible.”

And China alarmed defense officials in October when it sent a hypersonic missile with nuclear capability into orbit.

“We face real challenges in space, from the growing problem of orbital debris to the increased militarization of space in light of recent weapons tests by China and Russia,” Senator Cynthia Lummis, the top Republican on the Subcommittee for Space and Science, said in a statement to Spectrum News.

Lummis and a bipartisan group of her colleagues recently wrote letters urging Vice President Harris and the Department of Commerce to tackle the issue of space debris. 

“My desire is that tomorrow’s meeting produces momentum in the Biden administration to address both of these issues,” she added.

 

FILE – In this April 24, 2021 file photo made available by NASA, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station for docking. Space junk threatened the seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station and forced them to seek shelter in their docked capsules. The astronauts retreated into their docked capsules on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021 after being informed of the threat. (NASA via AP, File)

 

Space has already become another frontier for U.S.-China competition, Cheng said, and the United States’ efforts will be closely watched by Beijing, including the uncertain goal of getting humans on the moon in the next three years.

“The Chinese look at our declarations when we say we are going to go back to the moon in 2024 and then are unable to,” he said. “What does that say about American competency? American ability? American commitment?”

Meanwhile, the commercial space industry is at a peak as the potential for civilian spaceflight grows, marked by the first all-civilian launch by SpaceX in September.

“This is just an unparalleled time,” Stallmer said. “I think the U.S. should continue to take that leadership role in what we put up there, and what comes down.”

“The partnership between government and industry, I think, has never been better,” he added. “And we want to continue that moving forward.”

 

William Shatner, second from left, raises his hand while speaking with Audrey Powers, left, Chris Boshuizen, second from right and Glen de Vries raises during a media availability at the Blue Origin spaceport near Van Horn, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

 

While the core priorities of the National Space Council may stay consistent under the Biden administration, its overall structure could shift.

For now, the advisory group for the council — which includes Stallmer and Cheng — has 27 members who were chosen under former president Trump, with representatives like former astronaut Buzz Aldrin as well as politicians and advisers from the military, space industry and academic world. 

One of Harris’s goals for the advisory group is to improve diversity, the council’s executive secretary Chirag Parikh said in September, and he put out a call for new members that month.

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