Since the 1960s, space exploration has become embedded into the American DNA. The end of the Space Shuttle program, under Barack Obama, seemed to put American space leadership into doubt. But during the Trump administration, space exploration got a shot in the arm, and promises of humans landing on Mars were suddenly within grasp.
President Trump re-established the National Space Council early in his first term. At the end of 2017, he signed Space Policy Directive 1, a change in national space policy that provides for a U.S.-led, integrated program with private sector partners for a human return to the Moon, followed by missions to Mars and beyond.
The policy calls for the NASA administrator to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.” The effort will more effectively organize government, private industry, and international efforts toward returning humans on the Moon, and will lay the foundation that will eventually enable human exploration of Mars.
Trump and Congress created the Space Force — the eighth uniformed military service branch — in December 2019.
In his final days in office, President Trump issued a National Space Policy, which advocated “expanding U.S. leadership in space, allowing unfettered access to space, encouraging private sector growth, expanding international cooperation, and establishing a human presence on the Moon with an eventual human mission to Mars.”
Americans have gotten increasingly excited about our nation’s space exploration goals during the last four years. The culmination of the public-private partnership between Elon Musk’s SpaceX and NASA saw Americans cheer wildly as Americans were lifted into space again in May 2020. This was the first time since the Space Shuttle that Americans flew on U.S.-built spacecraft leaving from American soil.
Now, it appears the Biden administration is once again rolling back the clock on American space dominance. In his first days in office, Biden gave just tepid approval to the “Artemis” lunar program, yet at the same time called into question Trump’s bold plans to land an American on the moon in 2024.
In a more troubling and impactful decision, President Biden’s Federal Aviation Administration recently canceled the flight of another SpaceX mission which would have launched on January 28, 2021. According to Brandon Weichert in a column in The Washington Times, this cancellation seems to be setting the stage for a broader pullback of Trump’s space directives.
Sadly, the visionary goal of getting Americans to Mars first came crashing down when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which, under the Trump administration had allowed for SpaceX to conduct their important test flights, ordered Mr. Musk to cancel the Starship prototype test.
The FAA did not cite its reasoning behind ordering the cancellation of the launch. Many have speculated that the cancellation was brought about due to safety concerns. After all, in December 2020, SpaceX did a test of the experimental rocket. The Starship prototype made it to a height of 41,000 feet. Once it reoriented itself, in order to allow for the rocket to land vertically, the great silver spacecraft promptly did a bellyflop that ended in a massive explosion.
Further, Weichert warns that China will be the beneficiary of the new Biden slow-walk approach to space exploration.
It’s likely that the FAA’s decision to cancel the launch is part of a wider Biden administration effort undo the Trump administration’s vibrant space policy. Plus, former President Trump’s space vision was explicitly aimed at countering advances made by China in space. It is unlikely that the Biden administration seeks to continue that policy, as the Biden team attempts to stabilize deteriorating relations with Beijing over the next few years.
It is not only Mr. Musk who suffers from the FAA’s cancellation of the SpaceX test flight. We, the American people — and the entire effort to beat China to Mars — suffer. The Biden administration’s decision to increase regulations on the private space launch services sector and slow down their operations, as evidenced by the recent Starship launch cancellation, will only help China in its ongoing mission to defeat America in the new space race.
On many fronts, it seems the Biden administration is downplaying the threat to the United States from China — both on Earth and beyond. Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s derision of the Space Force last week is perhaps the best look into the current mindset of the Biden White House when it comes to American space dominance.
Editor’s note: This piece originally said Trump had set a goal for landing humans on Mars by 2024. Trump’s goal was to return humans to the Moon by 2024. The article has been corrected.