What's at Stake for Commercial and Civil Space in the 2020 Election?

With the 2020 U.S. national election fast approaching, the pandemic and the damage it has done to the U.S. economy are undoubtedly the top issues for voters this campaign season. While the general public may not go into the voting booth with future space policy in mind, Via Satellite readers and the U.S. commercial space industry are paying close attention to each of the two candidates’ space platforms, as the U.S. space industry is in the midst of a significant period of change and development.

Both candidates, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, would face enormous decisions in the coming years about the future of the newly created U.S. Space Force, investments in bridging the digital divide, spectrum allocation for Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations, NASA’s plans to return to the Moon and reach Mars, and supplying next-generation military space technologies. These decisions could influence billions of dollars in government investments, countless jobs, public/private partnerships, and a decade worth of research and development.

Despite the scale of the United States’ investment in space, it appears that neither presidential candidate has published a comprehensive space policy platform as part of their 2020 campaign. In this space policy election preview, Via Satellite features interviews with a number of current and former administration officials, space policy experts, and industry leaders about what the United States space strategy would look like for the next four years under a re-elected President Trump or a newly elected Vice President Biden.

Can Space Remain a Bipartisan Issue?

When it seems like national politics is more fractured and partisan than ever before, the U.S. satellite industry has enjoyed mostly bipartisan support in Washington D.C. for several years.

“That’s because things that affect the space and the satellite industry also affect economic opportunity and prosperity,” says Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president for Government Strategy and Policy at Inmarsat Government, who also assisted presidential transitions when she worked in the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). “They are fundamentally intertwined, and those are issues that are relevant to both Democrats and Republicans regardless of the administration.”

Peter B. Davidson, Intelsat’s vice president of Global Government Affairs and Policy said the satellite operator is closely watching the election for plans to extend broadband services with an “all of the above” approach to technologies and platforms will be necessary to bridge the digital divide. Intelsat is also following policies for how each campaign will create opportunities for the space industrial base to contribute to national priorities; and a new or updated national security strategy for the DoD, along with priorities for national security and civil space programs, as they relate to the Space Force and Moon to Mars program.

Skot Butler, president of Intelsat General Communications (IGC) said the space industry has been in the national spotlight the past four years and IGC hopes to see the next administration continue to emphasize the importance of space. Butler highlighted NASA pushing more mission execution on to commercial services and capabilities, and progress at the DoD in how it acquires commercial services, including comsatcom.

“It is critical the nation understands how pivotal space capabilities are across all facets of our society, and we are putting the appropriate resources, time, and attention towards advancing U.S. space capabilities,” Butler says. “We hope for continued recognition of the role of commercial space and the positive strides made over the past few years with policies and actions that build on these gains. … At a minimum, we don’t want to see this progress reversed. The commercial space industry has some exquisite capabilities that can be leveraged more by the U.S. government, and we hope to see those types of programs grow.”

Therese Jones has observed both the Trump and Biden campaigns as senior director of policy for the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), for which she runs working groups that respond to rulemaking on various topics like 5G, spectrum, and space debris. She says that the satellite industry is looking for hints at how each candidate would position satellite communication and remote sensing technologies as a critical part of the U.S. government’s infrastructure.

She believes both campaigns recognize the need to ensure broadband access across the country, especially with the prominence of remote work, school, and telehealth during the pandemic. But, Jones is interested in the specifics, and whether they would provide subsidies directly to consumers, or other incentives for companies to provide additional access to broadband.

“It’s constantly been work for us to ensure satellite is included in the conversation,” Jones says. “A lot of the programs or legislation that surrounds broadband is often not written initially as being technology neutral, it will have requirements that exclude satellite — a common one that we run into is a latency requirement. While you can't do 100 percent of your online activities, what that mostly impacts is online gaming. [But] the technology has really come a long way. Once we have NGSO [Non-Geostationary Orbit] constellations, there'll be much lower latency available.”

If President Trump Wins…

The Republican Party did not write a traditional platform this year, instead voting to adopt the 2016 platform for four more years. In August, the Trump campaign released a 54-point list of the President’s core priorities for a second term. This list included the direct space-related priorities of launching the U.S. Space Force, establishing a permanent manned presence on the Moon, and sending the first manned mission to Mars — and other points of interest to the industry, with a 5G goal to establish a national high-speed wireless internet network, and to build a cybersecurity defense system.

The second term agenda did not include further specifics on these plans, but the industry can look to the past four years of space policy for evidence on where a possible next four years will go. The Trump campaign declined Via Satellite’s request for an interview, but replied in an email with the following statement.

“America’s space enterprise cannot afford a Joe Biden presidency,” the campaign’s Deputy National Press Secretary Thea McDonald writes in the reply, accusing Biden of having a “lackluster” record of action on space during the Obama administration. “A Biden administration would put space priorities on the backburner and deplete the historic progress President Trump has made in his first term ... In his second term, President Trump will build on his historic first-term accomplishments and keep America the top space-faring nation in the world.”

One of Trump’s biggest accomplishments in space during his first term was the re-establishment of the National Space Council (NSC), the principal unit for space commerce policy activities, in 2017. The NSC had been disbanded since 1993. During the past three years, the council has issued five Space Policy Directives (SPD), including the goal of returning humans to the Moon, followed by human missions to Mars; establishing the U.S. Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. Armed Forces; and the most recent directive issuing cybersecurity principles for space systems.

Yet the Trump administration’s goal to reach the Moon by 2024 has changed during Trump’s time in office. Space Policy Directive 1, issued in December 2017, reinstated returning to the Moon as a goal, but did not provide a time frame. NASA was working toward a deadline of 2028, but Vice President Mike Pence pushed that deadline up in a speech in March 2019, declaring the timeline, “just not good enough,” setting the new goal as 2024.

This set a very ambitious goal for NASA. To that end, President Trump’s budget request to Congress for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 requested $25.2 billion for NASA, a 12 percent increase from the 2020 enacted level, arguing increased funding will support programs to land astronauts on the Moon. But the House of Representatives passed a spending bill July 31 that includes $22.6 billion for NASA, keeping funding flat from 2020. At press time, lawmakers are expected to approve a continuing resolution to extend FY 2020 spending past the start of FY 2021 on Oct. 1, pushing back a FY 2021 budget.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that NASA will face cost and schedule risks to meet deadlines to return to the Moon. Its 2020 Assessment of Major Projects for NASA found that from May 2019 to April 2020, cost growth for major projects was approximately 31 percent over project baselines. GAO reported that the agency “will continue to face significant cost and schedule risks as it undertakes complex efforts to return to the moon under an aggressive time frame.”

Dr. Scott Pace, deputy assistant to the president and executive secretary of the National Space Council, said that Americans are more reliant than ever on space for security and economic prosperity. Therefore, the National Space Council’s top priority has been to ensure that the United States continues to lead the world as the foremost spacefaring nation. “In terms of civil space policy, that means restoring America’s human space exploration mission with an emphasis on ensuring a robust and sustainable human presence in space,” he said.

The Trump administration’s Space Policy Directive 2, issued in May 2018, called for relaxed and streamlined regulations around commercial space activities. The Department of Commerce then updated its rules on licensing private remote sensing systems, an update that went into effect in July 2020. The Department of Transportation is working on licensing reform for space launch and reentry. Space Policy Directive 3, issued in June 2018, implemented a new approach to Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and space traffic management. In August, the National Academy of Public Administration endorsed elevating the Office of Space Commerce as directed by SPD-3 to be responsible for collecting and distributing information to enhance civil and commercial spaceflight safety.

Pace said the U.S. is “unquestionably” the global leader in space, but does not lead alone. He said that the government is working to promote common values with international partners, highlighting work by NASA and the Department of State on the Artemis Accords, and the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space work to create guidelines for international norms for activities in space.

“Space is a shared domain on which the United States and our allies are critically dependent, and we have returned to an era of great power competition. We know that the rule of a domain, whether on land or sea, or in the air or space, are set by those who show up, not those who stay behind. If humanity is to have a future in space, it should be a future in which space is the home of peoples and nations that share – or at least respect, our values,” he said.

The standing up of the U.S. Space Force brought space, and specifically the military’s role in developing space, into the public consciousness. Pace said the next several years will be critically important for the Space Force, as it tackles issues like completing the transfer of personnel, ensuring an effective recruiting program, implementing acquisition reforms, and developing a distinct culture for the force.

“The Space Force has a tremendous opportunity over the next several years to redefine how the service will operate and function for decades to come. During the standup phase, the rules are unwritten, and there is no mandate to follow Air Force precedents. This will all come down to the USSF establishing its own culture and allowing that to mature within the Pentagon, across the nation, and globally,” Pace said.

Inmarsat’s Cowen-Hirsch commented that the Trump administration’s reestablishment of the National Space Council was positively received by the commercial space industry. “We would hope, regardless of the outcome, that that National Space Council would continue to be as vibrant and as engaged as they have. They have taken very significant positions with their Space Policy Directives,” she says, pointing to the council’s directives on returning to the Moon, and space traffic management, an issue important to Inmarsat Government.

If Vice President Biden Wins…

Former Vice President Joe Biden has said very little about space on the campaign trail. As of mid-September, Biden has not given any speeches on space policy and the campaign did not respond to repeated requests to interview for this story.

The 2020 Democratic Platform and Biden’s agenda include some basic bullet points on commercials and civil space development. The campaign is firm on the need to expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to rural America. Biden has pledged to invest $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure, and triple funding to expand broadband access in rural areas. In addition, Biden’s plan for American leadership outlines investment in innovation, specifically research and development in quantum computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and 5G. The plan aims to develop secure, private sector-led 5G networks.

Biden’s platform also lists support for NASA as a priority, specifically a continued presence on the International Space Station (ISS), and NASA's work to return to the Moon and reach Mars. The platform also outlines strengthening NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth observation missions to understand how climate change is impacting Earth. But, the Biden campaign has yet to provide details on how it hopes to achieve these goals and there is no clear signal as to whether or not his administration would rewrite U.S. space policy.

Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, commented that although the Biden campaign has not put out a clear space policy, most space programs are long-term and have progressed fairly consistently from administration to administration, regardless of which party is in power. He said a Democratic administration would likely attribute more funds to Earth Science and addressing space with respect to climate change.

“There are, of course, always twists and rhetoric involved when there is a change in parties in the United States. But the basics will continue — human space flight, deep space exploration, technology improvements and advances in space hardware, etc. … But the United States will continue to invest in space, encourage international cooperation in space programs and affairs, and be a leader in advancing space technology and space applications,” Hertzfeld said.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said that if Biden is elected president, he would likely closely follow the space policies of the Obama/Biden administration, much like President Trump has. Garver, who does not represent the Biden campaign, was lead space policy advisor for the Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry campaigns, and she also led the NASA review team during the transition after the 2008 election.

Garver says that Biden was a “full participant” in space policy decisions during her tenure at NASA. “He didn't want to be stove-piped into specific roles. They were a full partnership, and we would often hear from him, in addition to the president, or in lieu of the president,” she said.

Garver pointed to Biden’s emphasis on science, and that climate change is a cornerstone issue of his campaign. To that end, she also said a Biden administration may accelerate or fully fund NASA’s Decadal survey in the Earth sciences, and seek out new commercial partnerships in remote sensing.

The Obama/Biden administration saw successes in NASA with programs like the Mars Curiosity rover landing, and the Kepler mission, but was criticized for the end of the Space Shuttle program, and canceling the Constellation program to return to the Moon to focus on an asteroid landing as a stepping stone to Mars.

This past May, the Trump administration touted NASA’s major victory with the successful Commercial Crew demonstration mission, as SpaceX launched U.S. astronauts launched from U.S. soil. Yet this was a product of the Obama years, as the Commercial Crew Program began in 2011 and grew out of funding for NASA in the 2009 Recovery Act stimulus package. Biden issued a statement of support after the successful mission for “pioneering new phase of public-private cooperation for the peaceful exploration of space.”

“The policy related to climate change in this administration is quite different than it would be in a Biden administration. NASA, and other government agencies, international, and private sector all [have] data that can be better utilized for a combination of adaptation, resilience, and even some mitigation [of climate change],” she said.

From her experience leading the transition team, Garver said it’s unknowable whether a Biden administration would keep the National Space Council, or adjust NASA’s priorities, because the transition period is when a newly elected administration really finds out how things are running, and whether a project is on schedule or on budget.

“The space community I know yearns for statements — many times just to try to get somebody on the record so they can try and pin him down later. That isn't really a way to run the space program. Someone ought to get in, look at what's happening, and make some informed decisions,” Garver says. “I know for us, we found things during the transition [to the Obama administration] unfortunately that had not progressed as they had been promised. People shouldn't be nervous about protecting great programs.”

In terms of the U.S. military, the Democratic platform does not mention the Space Force, but promises to invest in security technologies like cyber and space, and AI and unmanned systems. The Biden campaign’s plan for American leadership mentions expanding capabilities to take on non-traditional threats like weaponized corruption, cyber theft, and challenges in space.

The future of the Space Force if Biden becomes president is a question mark. Cowen-Hirsch says she hopes there would not be a lack of direction for the new military branch if there is a transfer of power.

“What we would hope is that there would not be a lack of direction,” she says. “One of the beautiful things about this country is that peaceful transition of power. What runs the risk when there is any type of administration change is when there's not clarity … that introduces uncertainty. That’s true for the Space Force, it's absolutely true for all of the military departments.”

Cowen-Hirsch said Inmarsat will be watching closely the next president’s budget request to Congress, specifically the budget line for commercial satcom. After the recent $2.2 trillion stimulus bill known as the CARES Act, someone has to pay the bill, and that raises questions about the DoD’s budget, and all other discretionary spending.

She emphasized that integrating commercial satcom into the national security architecture is a long-term planning issue, and it's important that progress continue to be made regardless of which candidate assumes the Oval Office in 2021.

“History has indicated that when you have a new Democratic president, there is typically less tendency to increase the defense budget. But, all indications are at this point that the defense budget will remain flat. That's not unreasonable at all,” Cowen-Hirsch said. “There are trades and there are priorities that need to be set. Our position is to ensure that regardless of whether it's Biden or Trump, or where the Congress lies, we believe that economic opportunities and national security are fundamentally supported by a very strong critical information infrastructure, of which satellite communications is [a part].” VS

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