Campaign '08

Biden on space

Late Friday night the Obama campaign announced it had selected Joe Biden, a senator from Delaware and former presidential candidate himself, as Obama’s running mate. Naturally, the first question that comes to everyone’s minds is, “what does he think about space policy?” Well, maybe not, but if you’re still reading this, you’re curious.

However, not surprisingly, there’s not much to say about Biden and space policy. The Biden campaign was one of the campaigns I contacted for an article in The Space Review about candidates’s positions on space, but, like the others, didn’t get a response from. The journal Nature had a little more success in early January, reporting that he “wants to make China a full partner in space rather than a ‘frustrated new entrant’ that has to catch up with the United States.” And at a New Hampshire debate last fall, he told an attendee, “I like the robotic programs” and, about human spaceflight, “with clear leadership we could do anything, good luck.”

In the Senate he doesn’t serve on the Commerce or Appropriations committees, so he’s not on the front lines of either authorization or appropriations legislation that would affect NASA. However, he does chair the Foreign Relations Committee, which has a tangential but key role now: In June he and the ranking Republican on the committee, Richard Lugar, introduced S.3103, the “International Space Station Payments Act of 2008″. This bill would have extended the current waiver in the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act that allows NASA to purchase flight services from Russia. That waiver currently expires at the end of 2011, and NASA officials have said that they need the extension this year since it takes up to three years to build a Soyuz spacecraft (the extension does not include Progress spacecraft, since NASA is planning on commercial and/or international alternatives to Progress). However, enthusiasm for the waiver has dropped significantly in the wake of Russia’s incursion into Georgia this month, raising doubts it will be passed.

One other thing to keep in mind. Earlier this month Obama advocated re-establishing the National Space Council (also known as the National Aeronautics and Space Council), which traditionally has been chaired by the vice president. That means that, if Obama is elected in November and he carries through with his plans to recreate the council, Biden could be playing a much larger role in space policy in the next four years.

26 comments to Biden on space

  • Ted

    I don’t know bout space, but I’ll tell ya this:

    Biden — the perfect foil for Palin!

  • A web surfer

    Interesting, Jeff, thanks!

  • Charles Lurio

    What they used to say about the Veep’s job and a barrel of warm sp_t precisely describes what any forseeable administration cares about re space. If they pay it attention, it’s only along the Old Space, NASA is god lines or as a tool for foreign policy. Let’s just hope that _any_ administration allows XCOR, Virgin and others to keep flying despite their suffocating concerns about our hurting ourselves. At least if we can fly, we can evolve to orbit and beyond – eventually.

  • Doug Lassiter

    Good point about the National Space Council, and the leadership role of the VP in that (now abolished) advisory group. Worth considering the charter of that council in more detail, the organization of which one can find in the unamended Space Act.

    http://history.nasa.gov/spaceact.html Sec 201.

    Now, in that original charter, the President, not the VP, is designated to preside. It was the reestablished version in the Bush administration that had the VP (Dan Quayle) preside.

    If a restored Council were to look like that latter version, a VP with deep understanding of DC leadership would be required. I can’t imagine an “outsider” doing this. In that respect, Biden shows a lot of potential. The “advise and consent” role of the Senate in this (which is common for such councils) underscores Biden’s credibility here.

    That council includes both the Secretaries of State and Defense, over which a guy like Biden would provide striking gravitas. In practice, lack of buy-in by State and Defense is one of the real failures of the current Vision. I don’t believe that Dan Quayle had the level of, or variety of, congressional insight that Biden would bring here.

    In this context, I don’t see any of the people on McCain’s VP shortlist as being obvious NSC material. McCain himself would do fine, though. Though McCain wasn’t the candidate who suggested the revitalization of that group in the first place.

  • mike shupp

    (This gets to Biden. It just takes a while. Sorry.)

    Spaceflight “issues” seem to fall into three categories. The first, and much the simplest, is Technological. We need better fuels, more reliable vehicles, etc. We need tools that will let us transform lunar regolith into housing and oxygen and tools and other essentials of life. This is a matter of time and money and ingenuity, none of which are in short supply if we choose to expend them.

    The second is Financial. Figuring out how to finance astronautical R&D when the federal budget is strapped, figuring out how to finance the sort of infrastructure needed to make the moon and planets habitable, figuring out how to split the bills between taxpayers and the corporations that stand to gain from space programs. In principle, these are solvable issues, since the USA is a rich nation becoming richer evey decade, and the cost of space development is comparatively small.

    The third is Political. Should we attempt to build self-sustaining American colonies on the Moon and the planets? Should we simply build the equivalent of Antarctic research bases? Should we build settlements in cooperation with other nations, whether 2 or 20? Should we allow corporations to operate money-making enterprises on celestial bodies? Should we carve up the planets between space-faring nations and if so by what means? Do we let ordinary citizens migrate to the planets in large numbers or restrict exploration to a handful of government-funded astronauts? Shall we allow children to be born on the planets? Do the resources of Mars belong to Earthly governments and corporations or are they the natural property of future Mars dwellers? Et cetera, et cetera.

    It’s this third set of issues that really limits progress in space. We haven’t spent nearly 40 years timidly circling the earth in our manned programs because that’s the best Old Time Space Fans have dreamt of, and because those of us who remember Apollo want to keep space restricted to Official Government Astronauts. We’ve spent 40 years in limbo because the US (and other) governments have been doing their best to pretend these issues DON’T EVEN EXIST, because dealing with them will have huge impacts on foreign policy.

    It is not, for example, going to be easy to persuade most Latin Americans that US corporations ought to be free to exploit mineral resources on the planets, since most Latin Americans think US corporations have unfairly exploited Latin American resources. It is not going to make Singaporeans and Nigerians and Ceylonese happy if they think their descendents will never reach the planets Americans and Russians and Chinese have colonized except as house cleaners, gardeners, whores, and causual laborers. And the US government has to make these people happy because the US government needs the support of their governments to legitimize US actions in areas unrelated to space — in Viet Nam in the 1960′s for example, in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000′s.

    So the real obstacles to progress in space, I conclude, are not so much Technological or Financial as they are Political. And not so much domestic politics but foreign policy. We need some progress on these policy issues to figure out and implement viable schems for space exploration, exploitation, and colonization. We need to accommodate the wishes of other nations, who may or may not be space farers. We need to do it soon. We need agreements which are resiliant, fair, and enforcible. And, if only because we cannot guarantee that the USA will always be the foremost power in space, we need agreements that protect the rights of both minor and major spacefarers.

    Now. Biden doesn’t seem to be a space policy wonk, but he is generally viewed as a foreign policy wonk. And he’s generally viewed as a realist. I don’t think that as head of a National Space Council, he’d be the best person in the country to seize control of NASA from Mike Griffin and redesign Ares I. But he might be well placed to make agreements with Europe and China and Japan and Russia about reasonable schemes for partitioning the Moon. And he might point the way to agreements for Lunar colonization that open up the high frontier to Taiwanese and Costa Ricans and Lebanese and Libyans as well as Americans. He could do great things for space development.

    If he chose to do so. If his boss allowed it. If he were elected.

  • red

    Mike: From the Outer Space Treaty of 1967:

    “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

    Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

    States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.”

    So … space is open to all countries, whether or not they are current space powers. Countries cannot set up branches of themselves on, for example, the Moon. If they set up a mining camp, they own the camp and perhaps a small safety zone around it, and the material they mine from the Moon, but that’s it. Also, non-government entities (private citizens) are allowed in space and can also use its resources; they just need to be regulated by their home countries.

    A lot of those questions have already been resolved, and a lot of the rest aren’t foreign policy issues, or aren’t pressing in the absense of well-established settlements.

  • factchecker

    The Obama space policy states that the President will lead the recreated National Aeronautics and Space Council — not the Vice President. The President has not chaired the Space Council since Eisenhower. President’s Kennedy, Nixon and Bush Sr. tasked it to the V.P.’s to give them something to do.

  • Doug Lassiter

    That’s true that the Obama space policy states that the President would lead the Council. But I suspect that if Obama gave the responsibility to Biden to chair it, he’d still be happy to claim that he was “leading” it. If Kennedy, Nixon, and Bush Sr. had been asked with regard to U.S. space — who’s the top dog here? — they would have pointed at themselves.

    It’s probably a mistake to presume that a new NSC would look anything like previous ones. A democratic congress would not, as they did to Reagan, deny an Obama and Biden administration a Space Act amendment that would give them the Council structure they wanted.

    I think that what Obama is saying, by committing to an NSC, is that he doesn’t trust this NASA to provide the kind of top level advice on civil space strategy that he thinks he needs. It isn’t just Griffin, who is probably toast in any case. Whether Biden is the person to guaranty that advice is TBD. That advice has to involve international agreements and State policy, and has to have some awareness of DoD efforts, so an independent standing advisory group is probably not in the cards.

  • Al Fansome

    An interesting point about Obama’s policy stating the President will lead the NSC.

    I think it unlikely that Obama has personally thought through this issue enough to consider the alternative of the President or VP leading the NSC. He certainly does not have the time to give due consideration to the great detail, and many alternative options available, in a policy statement at this late date.

    Considering the amount of detail, I would give large odds that this policy language was written by staff (probably led by Lori); that Obama read the policy as whole cloth, and that he approved it relatively quickly (with some changes perhaps) as being consistent with his general desires and thinking.

    Meaning, it is not out of bounds to think that Biden could be tasked to lead the NSC.

    In fact, considering the amount of other demands on the President’s time — the President will almost certainly not have a lot of time to dedicate to the tough issues that will come before the NSC. For that reason, I personally think it would be MUCH better for us if the VP is tasked with this responsibility.

    FWIW,

    - Al

  • Adrian

    “the second is Financial. Figuring out how to finance astronautical R&D when the federal budget is strapped, figuring out how to finance the sort of infrastructure needed to make the moon and planets habitable, figuring out how to split the bills between taxpayers and the corporations that stand to gain from space programs. In principle, these are solvable issues, since the USA is a rich nation becoming richer evey decade, and the cost of space development is comparatively small.”

    mike: i agree in large part with your ideas concerning the importance of IR and multilateral negotiations in determining how U.S. space policy shall proceed in the future. but you failed to point out the financial element is impossible to fulfill if the United States is spending $4 billion weekly in Iraq and Afghanistan. as a member of the Navy community, i feel compelled to argue in favor of funding for the operations as they are ongoing, and take fault with Democratic leadership (Obama) when they vote against supplementals. but the underlying truth is the Iraq war was voluntary, it is gobbling up our discretionary funding now, it is detracting from our ability to win in Afghanistan (and has been for the past six odd years), and the costs related (VA funding, interest on borrowed loans to pay for the wars, since GOP refuses to enact pay-go, replacement & readiness renewal) are killing our budget. if you want to talk about budgets, you are obligated to speak about the wars.

    if you want to talk about the election, you are morally obligated to take a stance on the justifications and status of those wars. i love space & NASA, and want no less than everyone here to see the U.S. and humanity colonize our solar system and make a damn good profit in the process, but we cant do that if we are constantly invading other countries; war just costs too damn much these days.

    make up your own minds, but regardless of their personal records or positions on space, one candidate is more aggressive and unilateral in nature, the other is more cooperative and multilateral in nature. these differences will in large part determine discretionary funding levels, and NASA depends on discretionary funding. the details can be left to the VP or other deputies, the fundamentals remain the same.

    rockets to the moon and Mars, not Tehran and China.

  • spectator

    Adrian since the US is insatiable with its drive to conquer, we will not likely have much money for discretionary funding of NASA. Even should Obama win, a 50-50 proposition at the moment, he will have to deal with the Empire’s funding requirements. Plus a President Obama has sketched out a far reaching social justice program for the oppressed in the US and those oppressed abroad due to decades of US imperialism. I’d say discretionary funding checks won’t have NASA’s name on the Pay to line for at least the first 4 years of his administration.

  • Mike: since the USA is a rich nation becoming richer every decade

    Unfortunately, the second phrase at least almost certainly is not true. We are not investing in the future, and we’re borrowed to the hilt. Things seem good in the same sense that someone feels good just before their credit cards max out, but the United States (either the government or collectively) have not lived within our means for a very long time. Given the impending baby boom retirement, our obligations will be expanding right at the moment the rest of the world is unlikely to continue financing our debt. While I’d love to be proven wrong, most likely spaceflight, and other “optional” activities are in far bigger trouble than they appear.

    Countering that trend is the political. Today’s generation of leaders grew up seeing human spaceflight as part of the background noise. They do not automatically see it as a waste and far more than in the past are actively for it.

    All that said, I agree with you the foreign policy will get ever more important to spaceflight, if not with all the details of your analysis.

    Doug: Noticed how Dr. Griffin seems to be keeping his mouth shut these days? While I agree that he has (and should have) little chance, I wonder if he’s angling to continue in his present position. . . .

    Adrian, I largely agree.

    – Donald

  • mike shupp

    Red -
    I’m aware of the Outer Space Treaty. Note that it is 40 years old, and major provisions have never used — no one’s been in a position to plant a flag and claim the moon since 1972, for example. You might also note it will be even older at whatever point humans return to the moon. And you might remember it was agreed to at a time when the US was much less confident of its lead in spaceflight than today, and a time when the US faced considerable opposition from other nations because of the Viet Nam War.

    I wonder, in other words, how much of that treaty really has the practical standing of established law, and how much is simply “feel good” boilerplate, which future spacefaring powers may choose to interpret as they find convenient. No doubt the prohibition against OVERT land grabs will hold up for the foreseeable future. But we’ve got a long tradition, here and elsewhere, at saying one thing and acting in quite another.

  • we cant do that if we are constantly invading other countries…

    We’re “constantly invading other countries”? Who knew? Is there some kind of press cover up going on?

  • Chance

    “We’re “constantly invading other countries”? Who knew? Is there some kind of press cover up going on?”

    In the last 20 years alone: Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq again. Whatever merits you feel there are for these various military excursions, there has hardly been a cover up of them, and the financial expense is not trivial.

  • Chance

    “Countries cannot set up branches of themselves on, for example, the Moon. If they set up a mining camp, they own the camp and perhaps a small safety zone around it, and the material they mine from the Moon, but that’s it.”

    The words “de facto ownership” come to mind for some reason.

  • Doug Lassiter

    Noticed how Dr. Griffin seems to be keeping his mouth shut these days? While I agree that he has (and should have) little chance, I wonder if he’s angling to continue in his present position. . . .

    I wouldn’t say that he’s keeping his mouth shut. His comments at the DC-X reunion last week were pretty blunt, and at least some of it was on target.

    http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/267632main_DCX_Reunion_18_Aug_08_Final.pdf

    Some rather specific grousing about “change”, and chest beating about staying the course. In his mind, this is about getting space transportation architecture, and not about what the nation gets for space transportation architecture. That’s where a Space Council could have some wisdom, and provide what the agency and, it would seem, Mike Griffin, cannot. At least it would provide some adult supervision for an agency that seems to have lost its way.

  • Whatever merits you feel there are for these various military excursions, there has hardly been a cover up of them, and the financial expense is not trivial.

    Even if one doesn’t believe these were justified (e.g., the notion that we “invaded” Somalia, Yugoslavia or Haiti is lunacy), that hardly constitutes “constantly.” More like “occasionally.”

  • Chance

    You’re nitpicking over the use of the words invasion and constantly. Substitute whatever synonyms make you happy, but the original author’s point is still valid.

  • The original author’s wording was so hyperbolic and ridiculous as to obliterate any intended point. It makes it difficult to take anything else he wrote seriously.

  • Doug, thank you for posting that link. I think it actually reinforces my comment: there is little in there that will be controversial to those outside of the broadly defined space community — no global warming could be a good thing kinds of statements.

    I actually agree with much of the speech. I believe that Dr. Griffin chose the wrong architecture, but I also think he is dead right that spaceflight is far more difficult that most of us want to believe — as Orbital Sciences demonstrated with the Pegasus that proved it was hard to be cheap and reliable at the same time, and as SpaceX is demonstrating today.

    That said, Dr. Griffin is correct that transportation is key. If our goal is to send geologists to Earth’s moon and ultimately Mars and get real ground truth field work that might actually answer our questions — as I believe it should be — today’s job is to develop the tools to get them there.

    – Donald

  • Engineering Lead

    Dr. Griffin is correct

    Actually, no, he’s not.

    He has not been right about one damn thing since he assumed the mantle of power at NASA. Not a single thing. He is truly ‘unfit for duty’.

    Propulsion is key, just in case you’re interested.

  • vulture4

    I agree!! It is not possible to be cheap and reliable with an ELV, because any space payload, particularly a crew, requires a level of quality that is costly. As a result human spaceflight with ELVs is simply not cost effective.

    That is why the Shuttle was built; to reduce the cost of human spaceflight to a practical level. It did not achieve the low cost and high reliability specified, not because this goal is physically unachievable but because it was our first attempt and numerous design decisions were made before we had any flight experience with the critical systems.

    The solution to this was the technology demonstrator program, to identify the best design approaches for a new generation of RLVs that would be practical and reliable, and test them in actual flight. These were canceled by the current administration. Giving up on RLVs and going back to solids now is like flying nothing but the Wright “A” Flyer until 1930 and then deciding that heavier-than-air flight is impractical and going back to baloons.

    Moreover, the Shuttle and ISS were justified on the basis of practical benefits, whether political, scientific, or economic. If we have not yet produced these benefits, I suggest we try harder. If humans cannot do anything of practical value in LEO, it is inconceivable that we can do anything of practical value on the moon.

    Recent presentations that try to justify the enormous cost of the VSE on the basis of the “spirit of exploration” and “destiny of humanity” are painfully naive. Attempts to start a space race with China are absurd. It is inconceivable that either political party will commit $10B+/yr indefinitely on such arguments. No one in government is committed to this plan except Bush, who has scrapped decades of work and thousands of careers, yet even he refused a NASA funding increase requested by Congress. The Democrats might give more to NASA but would expect it to do useful work. (What a concept!) The public will not accept a tax increase of any size, and if there is a public clamor to spend more tax dollars to return Americans to the moon, I have seen no evidence of it.

    In short, the only thing sustaining the VSE in Congress at present is its inertia as a federal jobs program.Politicians care about jobs, not missions. As a result funding will probably remain level and as costs increase the moon landings will slip until the CEV will be limited to flights to the ISS, for which it will be about the same cost as the Shuttle with much less capability. In my humble opinion, we are proceeding headlong toward a dead end.

    Anyone who wants to demolish my arguments is more than welcome. Best regards to all.

  • Al Fansome

    Did anybody notice the first post in this discussion, from August 23rd?

    TED: I don’t know bout space, but I’ll tell ya this:

    Biden — the perfect foil for Palin!

    Who the heck is “Ted”, and how did Ted know?????

    Ted, if it was just a WAG, I want to talk to you about buying stocks for me.

    - Al

  • [...] vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden did not have much of a reputation as a space advocate during his long tenure in the Senate. However, he’s learning the language of space policy on the campaign trail, particularly in [...]

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