Vice President Kamala Harris’ role as the head of the National Space Council is prescribed by law, but that doesn’t mean she and her boss at the White House had to take it seriously.
The space council’s role as a forum for coordinating federal space policy goes back to the Eisenhower administration. But it languished in hibernation for a couple of decades until its revival by the Trump White House, with Vice President Mike Pence filling the statutory role of chairman. Under Pence’s leadership, the council conducted public hearings and drew up seven policy directives on matters ranging from moon exploration to nukes in space.
Today Harris confirmed in a tweet that she’ll keep the ball rolling during the Biden administration:
As I've said before: In America, when we shoot for the moon, we plant our flag on it. I am honored to lead our National Space Council.
— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) May 1, 2021
During a background briefing for reporters, senior administration officials said Harris won’t be a mere figurehead.
The vice president “intends to put her own personal stamp on the concept,” one official said. (The briefing was conducted under the condition that the senior officials would not be identified further.)
As described by the official, those personal interests include:
- Supporting sustainable development of commercial space activity.
- Advancing peaceful norms and responsible behaviors in space.
- Achieving exploration objectives with allies and partners.
- Developing space policies that address the climate challenge.
- Promoting education in science, technology, engineering and math.
- Fostering workforce diversity and regional economic development.
- Enhancing cybersecurity in space.
All that is in addition to the council’s basic objectives pertaining to national security, basic science, technological development and contributions to U.S. economic growth and the commercial sector.
There’s a lot that still has to be done when it comes to organizing the work of the space council: An executive secretary has yet to be named, although the officials said they’ve already started looking at candidates. There’s not yet any schedule for council meetings or hearings, and a new routine for consulting with industry executives and other stakeholders is still in the works.
But the outlines of Joe Biden’s space policy may not be much different from those set by the Trump administration. The officials reiterated White House support for NASA’s Artemis program to send astronauts to the moon by the mid-2020s, as well the U.S. Space Force‘s status as a separate military branch under the Air Force’s wing.
White House aides said the Trump administration’s space policy directives will remain in effect. The new space council is likely to draw up further policy directives, but no decisions have been made on what form those policies might take.
The official who mentioned Harris’ personal stamp suggested that the new vice president’s attitude toward the National Space Council may be as much a case of style as of substance.
“Without drawing too much of a contrast, I think her approach to this is just going to be to get the job done and use this to lead our space policy — and not really focus perhaps as much on big displays, but on getting the work done,” the official said.
How much time will Harris devote to space policy? That’s an open question: The officials involved in today’s background briefing took pains to point out that Harris has been given several other duties, such as addressing the international migration crisis, leading the effort to expand high-speed internet access and winning support for the White House’s American Jobs Plan.
Harris wasn’t exactly a leading light on space policy during her term in the Senate — but former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who’s due to be sworn in as NASA’s new administrator by Harris on Monday, said she’s the right woman for the job.
“The vice president is the perfect person to lead the federal government’s space policy, which is increasingly complex, with many nations in space,” Nelson said in a NASA statement. “Vice President Lyndon Johnson was the first chair of the National Space Council when America initially ventured beyond Earth. Now, Vice President Harris will coordinate our nation’s efforts to ensure America continues to lead in space. It is an exciting time for our space program.”