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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Joe Biden hasn't gone out of his way to talk about outer space during his presidential campaign. That could be bad news for NASA's exploration ambitions, but good news for the Space Force.

The big picture: NASA faces two threats with any new administration: policy whiplash and budget cuts. In a potential Biden administration, the space agency could get to stay the course on the policy front, while competing with other priorities on the spending side.

The state of play: President Trump has taken a vested interest in space, directing NASA to send people back to the surface of the Moon by 2024 and standing up the Space Force.

  • By contrast, Biden has made few comments about the American space program during his campaign, with one of the most notable being a congratulatory statement marking SpaceX's first crewed flight for NASA in May.
  • The Democratic Party platform says NASA should focus on getting people back to the Moon. But the 2024 deadline would likely be scuttled in favor of a later landing date under Biden, space analysts have said.
  • While he has spoken broadly of the need to invest trillions of dollars in research and science, Biden's top priority will be fighting climate change on Earth, not planning new missions to the Moon and Mars.

But, but, but: Biden clearly wants to spend more on science, and that could have spillover effects for NASA, which is involved with climate change research: "We used to invest a little over 2.6% of our GDP in research and science," he said last week. "It's now down to 0.6%."

  • After the splashdown of SpaceX's Crew Dragon in early August, Biden said, "As president, I look forward to leading a bold space program that will continue to send astronaut heroes to expand our exploration and scientific frontiers through investments in research and technology to help millions of people here on Earth."

The other side: Biden's proposal for a $300 billion increase in funding for research and development doesn't directly mention NASA, unlike other federal agencies.

  • "NASA is one of those things that's oddly missing from a lot of their campaign's discussion," Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society told Axios of Biden's messaging.

Between the lines: Under Trump, the Space Force was politicized and the president forced the Pentagon to establish a separate department after protests from then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

  • There's some optimism that under different leadership, the space domain will be treated like other operating theaters.
  • "People need to start listening to the war fighters and doing the war gaming the same way they do in other domains," former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told Axios. "Job one is to get serious about war fighting and strategy."

The backstory: The space agency Barack Obama inherited from George W. Bush was one marked by the end of the space shuttle program, but the NASA of a Biden first term or Trump second term is less defined by transition and more focused on pushing toward larger goals.

The bottom line: It remains unclear how NASA's plans for exploring the Moon and Mars might fare under a Biden presidency, but the space agency will likely need to compete with other research and development priorities if Biden is elected.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Jan 26, 2021 - Science

Investment in the space industry overcame the pandemic's headwinds in 2020

A SpaceX launch in 2020. Photo: SpaceX

Investment in the space industry continued to grow in the last quarter of 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report from Space Capital.

Why it matters: The space industry turned out to be far more robust in the face of the pandemic than many experts were initially expecting.

2 hours ago - World

U.S. drone strike victims' families in Afghanistan seek compensation

A relative of Ezmarai Ahmadi, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike, looks at the wreckage of a vehicle that was damaged in the strike in the Kwaja Burga neighbourhood of Kabul on Saturday. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi AFP via Getty Images

Relatives of 10 Afghans killed by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul last month said Saturday they want to see punishment and compensation over the deaths.

Driving the news: The relatives said it's "good news" that the U.S. had "officially admitted" that "they had attacked innocents" in the Aug. 29 strike that killed Zamarai Ahmadi, an aid worker with a U.S.-based group, and nine family members, but they still need "justice," per AFP.

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
6 hours ago - Science

All-civilian Inspiration4 is back on Earth after flight to space

A side-by-side of the Inspiration4 crew and a shot of their capsule on the way back to Earth. Photo: SpaceX

The all-civilian Inspiration4 crew is back on Earth after their three-day mission in orbit.

The big picture: The launch and landing of this fully amateur, private space crew marks a changing of the guard from spaceflight being a largely government-led venture to being under the purview of private companies.