The United States' 2020 elections are over. What do the results mean for NASA in the years ahead? To help answer that question, we welcome back Brendan Curry, The Planetary Society's Chief of D.C. Operations. Join us as we review the changes in Congress and the White House that will impact the direction of the U.S. space program.
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Mat Kaplan: Welcome to the November Space Policy Edition of planetary radio. We're very glad to have you. I'm Mat Kaplan, the host of Planetary Radio joined again, as always by Casey Dreier, the chief advocate and senior Space Policy Advisor for the Planetary Society. Casey, I can't imagine what we're going to talk about. There's nothing going on.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, well, I figure we'll wing it this episode, Mat, we'll figure out something.
Mat Kaplan: Well, thank goodness, we'll have help from Brendan curry, the chief of Washington operations for the Planetary Society. Brendan, great to have you back.
Brendan Curry: Thanks, Mat. And it's a great to be back with you fellas. Looking forward to talking about all types of interesting stuff.
Mat Kaplan: We'll address at the top of the show, the top of the ticket, the fact that virtually every news organization, as we speak, has declared the race for Joe Biden, of course, there are still those in the country who are taking a wait and see attitude, and in some cases worse. But I think at least as we speak, a couple of days before this show is published. The result does seem pretty clear. Casey, anything to say about the race to become the next president?
Casey Dreier: Mathematically there, I think we're waiting for a delayed acceptance of that. But we have Joe Biden presidency to plan for both here at the society and for Space Policy. So no matter what the electors meet for the Electoral College in mid-December, they will vote. And then at January 20th, we will have a new president.
Mat Kaplan: All right, let's move on to other races that will also have a very big effect on how NASA and the Space Policy space program of the United States moves forward. And I know that both of you guys have been following this very closely. We'll get into the significance. But what are some of the key races that have been decided or are yet to be decided?
Brendan Curry: In the Congress, the committees at the society mainly focus on are what are called authorization committees and appropriations committees and as I've said, Casey's mentioned in previous episodes, the authorization committees in the House in the Senate with respect to NASA, they draft up very policy heavy bills, they're called authorization bills. And they're also the committees that do routine oversight over various NASA projects and programs. And then the appropriations committees in both bodies are the ones that essentially cut the checks for the various departments and agencies. And of course, the one we focus mostly on is NASA.
Brendan Curry: By and large with these committees that we care about, there has not been a dramatic change in the complexion of these committees by and large, but there are some notable changes taking place on the authorization committees. Namely, with the feet of space subcommittee Chairwoman Kendra Horn from Oklahoma. She was defeated just barely by a Republican challenger by the name of Stephanie Bice. And then on the Senate side, Cory Gardner, who was a strong space proponent, he's from Colorado, he's Republican, he was defeated by former governor John Hickenlooper while soon to be former Senator Gardner is strong on space for a variety of issues. Mr. Hickenlooper as governor was very well plugged into the space community as well and very cognizant of its importance, so we're very hopeful that Senator-elect to Hickenlooper will be pretty smart and active on space issues. And so those are the big changes on the authorization committees.
Brendan Curry: On the appropriations side of the fence, a lot of the action right now is with respect to the House mainly because the full committee chairperson for the House Appropriations Committee is a woman from New York by the name of Nita Lowey. And she's retiring. She wasn't defeated. She's just walking away. She's been in Congress for many years. And so she's retiring from Congress. And obviously, it means she gives up her chairmanship of the what is arguably the most powerful committee in the House. We'll have to see who takes over that position is full committee chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Brendan Curry: But also, the subcommittee of the appropriations committee that funds NASA is something called the commerce, science and justice subcommittee and that was chaired by a gentleman also from New York name Jose Serrano, and also like Lowey, he's retiring from Congress, was not defeated, and he's giving up his gavel of oversight of the committee that's going to fund NASA. And so we've got to see who takes over his chairmanship as well. And there's been some speculation on both those fronts. And I'm sure we'll talk about them in greater detail throughout this episode.
Mat Kaplan: And maybe to put this in additional context here. The overall landscape of the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party has at this point will hold their majority, though they lost seats. And so the majority in each chamber of Congress gets to basically set the agenda, they get to name the heads of each committee. And the heads of those committees are who directs the focus of the committee, the schedule of the committee, there's a significant amount of power just being in the majority.
Mat Kaplan: So the makeup of these committees that we're talking about, the CJS, the one that funds NASA, and the space subcommittee that does oversight, and also writes NASA overall policy. Those will remain in Democratic control in the House though because Democrats lost seats, there will be more Republican Congress, people on those committees. They balance out this proportional representation and sense of the committees themselves.
Brendan Curry: That is correct there. There's a ratio process that's going to be worked through over the coming weeks and months on how many Democrats will be on these various committees and how many Republicans will be on some of these committees. With the loss of some of those Democrat seats, those seats will be on those committees will have to be given up in some way or in some manner to Republicans. And so that's going to take a while, as you mentioned, Casey, the leadership in both parties decides who gets the chairmanships, essentially for these committees.
Brendan Curry: And so there's going to be a lot of politicking going on right now. Well, the American public has voted last week on what they want their next government to look like at the state-federal level. But in the Congress, there's going to be more activity going on with respect to the makeup of these committees, who gets to sit on what committees, and who takes the leadership of these committees, and that's a much more murkier process. There's a lot of things that are called into play, who gets what, for example, I mentioned Kendra Horn being defeated and she's no longer going to be the chairwoman of the space subcommittee. Now, you just cannot look at who populates that subcommittee right now on the Democrat side and just go down to the next person on that list underneath Kendra and say, well, gee, automatically that person gets the gavel. No, it doesn't work that way.
Casey Dreier: Right. There's always a bit of this congressional shuffle that happens when constituting a new Congress, which happens every two years. So people will move around, people will vie for these open seats. So there's not a clear outcome yet of who's going to fill these roles. And again, particularly for these leadership roles of appropriations and CJS appropriations, that has a lot of power and influence over our focus and priorities here with the Planetary Society because the CJS committee, they write the first draft of the NASA budget legislation in the House.
Casey Dreier: And it's a lot easier when you're writing that legislation, that earlier you draft the legislation or the earlier you have input into that, the more likely your goals are going to be reflected in the final legislation itself because it gets progressively harder as a legislation moves through Congress to alter the text because it requires more and more people to vote to amend, and more and more political coalition-building to achieve those results.
Casey Dreier: And so, the person who controls CJS committee controls that drafting of the NASA legislation, very important person. And then, of course, House Appropriations themselves, they help delegate how much money that each subcommittee has to work with, essentially sets the size of the pie for the committee like CJS to divvy up between NASA Commerce Department, Justice Department, and the other competing agencies under their jurisdiction. So we will know more about this when the new Congress comes together probably a few weeks after. It takes a few weeks to work this through, Brendan, with the new leadership assignments.
Brendan Curry: One would hope, Casey.
Casey Dreier: In the ideal case. Let's talk about the Senate side real quick too. So this is the House so we had a number of basically take away from the House. We've had one key chairperson lose a race and will be replaced by Republican. That Republican won't have the opportunity to chair because they're in the minority party in the House at the moment.
Brendan Curry: Yep, that's correct.
Casey Dreier: And then we have four retirements in the Appropriations Committee that will be replaced by people to be determined. On the Senate side, as you pointed out, we had Cory Gardner lose to John Hickenlooper. The Senate control is still up in the air. So at the time that we're recording this, the two open Senate seats in the state of Georgia have been pushed into both of them are in runoff territory. They will be a second election for those seats between the top two vote-getters that will happen in early January. So after the new Congress.
Mat Kaplan: January five.
Casey Dreier: Yeah.
Mat Kaplan: Then we're just two weeks before we swear in the new president?
Casey Dreier: Right. But after the new Congress comes together. So it'll be an interesting situation there. The Republican Party has so far 150 seats, that puts them right at basically almost the majority. The Democrats, if they pick up both of these seats, that they flip both these seats, then it's a 50/50 tie. And because Kamala Harris is the next Vice President, they would technically have the slimmest of slim majorities in the Senate, which would allowed them to control the overall flow and committee chairmanships and so forth.
Mat Kaplan: All of this comes up, as we see the incoming Biden administration moving full speed ahead, appointing, I read over 500 volunteers and others to help them through the transition, which we will be talking about shortly. But I wonder what this means right now for the discussions underway in both the House and the Senate. In fact, just today, we learned that the Senate has recommended a budget for NASA. What happens with all of this, guys?
Brendan Curry: In many ways, a lot of this is taking all in a concurrent manner. It's not staged in a orderly manner. With respect to the transition team, that's a function of the executive branch really. And so they're proceeding ahead as they see best to do. And the Congress still has to finalize their spending bills, and they're trying to do that as best they see fit. And so, it's all different processes that aren't always neat and tidy going on concurrently. And there may be at times overlap, and there may be at times no overlap, or the processes may be, in some cases, willfully ignorant of the other.
Casey Dreier: And we're going to be in this lame duck, so-called session coming up now, in Congress the last few months. So a number of members of Congress, Kendra Horn, and Cory Gardner, they still get to go and finish up their terms, even though they won't be coming back next year. And as you point out, Mat, we do have a cliff coming up for the federal budget, the spending authority expires in mid-December, the Senate has just finally moved and released their own draft of legislation to fund the entire government, they're not even going to bother to vote on that to pass it because there's so little time to get a consensus legislation with the House of Representatives, they're going to go right into negotiation. So they basically stated their negotiating position, and we move forward from this point out. So this is one of the big remaining issues left for this Congress to deal with. Of course, there's everything else related to COVID and the economy and other issues that may or may not get dealt with, before everything resets in early January going forward.
Casey Dreier: But again, I think the big takeaway here is that, fundamentally, the balance in Congress hasn't changed a whole lot, I think is what we can take away from this. It's very likely that the Republican Party maintains a majority in the next Senate. And so you'll have divided government still, which means that the favorite projects in the Senate will continue to have that probably be favored going forward in future spending, regardless of what a Biden administration would prefer.
Casey Dreier: And then also that you would have, at least in the next two years, the Democratic majority in the House, working with through their priorities. So one of the big questions for me, and this is something I would be curious to hear you speculate on Brendan, a bit would be Kendra Horn put forward earlier this year a NASA authorization bill through the House of Representatives that had a very different approach to a Moon to Mars program than what was currently being proposed. In Artemis using a strong commercial partnership for developing a lunar lander, this was much more of a minimal focus on the moon really focused on Mars and really pushing to go a classical aerospace contracting approach to developing lunar landers and other key components of a potential deep human spaceflight, lunar landing architecture.
Casey Dreier: Do you think that is going to continue to move forward without her or do you think she was a critical voice pushing that perspective through the House Democratic process?
Brendan Curry: I think there's definitely going to be an effort by the House authorizers to push something out of their committee with respects to a NASA authorization bill. The Senate has repeatedly offered up their version of a NASA authorization bill now for I think now to two years. It's almost a point of pride almost for the NASA authorizers in the House to get something. I will not speculate what it may look like. But there's definitely a need for them to get something out there and put something on the table. Before the virus, let me remind everyone, Back in 2019, the House was in session for about 135 or 140 days. At the start of 2020, the House was going to be in session only about 112 days and that was mainly due to the election. They were trying to give members in the House time to get opportunities to get home and campaign and then, of course, the virus hit, and then essentially, the House and the Senate were mainly shut down from March until into early July.
Brendan Curry: So the time available to do anything on a NASA authorization bill even if it enjoyed strong support. If Kendra's bill enjoyed strong support in the House, the chances of getting out of the committee and onto the House floor passed and then go into a conference committee with the Senate version, and getting it signed into law was pretty remote. It's going to very much depend on who takes over that subcommittee. From Kendra, Eddie Bernice Johnson, she will remain the full committee chair. And so she's going to have a say in it.
Brendan Curry: As you alluded to, Casey, there was some contentiousness by different stakeholders bill that was suggested that came out earlier this year. I'm sure they, behind closed doors, have said or have made their piece on what they like and what they didn't like. And that will be calculated into what the next iteration of the bill will be in what will be the 117th Congress.
Mat Kaplan: Do we know anything about the new people coming in to replace people like Kendra and some of those retirements in the House Appropriations Committee? Is there any one of them who we know has a strong space attitude or has said nice things about space? A lot of them tend to be because of the relative consequence of space into their districts, people from space states. We have some people from Alabama coming in, Oklahoma, New York, is there anything that tells us that they would have a strong opinion coming in on any space policy or funding?
Brendan Curry: Well, on the House side, the woman who's going to be representing Oklahoma's Fifth Congressional District, which was the district Kendra had, the chances of her taking any serious activity on spaces is quite remote. Kendra was a bit of an outlier and unusual and that she just inherently enjoyed space as a policy area and a policy issue in her previous life had some experience in Space Policy. And so she actually truly relished that subject area and was very happy to get involved not only in sharing the space Subcommittee on the House, but she was also on the House Armed Services Committee, namely the strategic forces subcommittee which has oversight over military space.
Brendan Curry: So it was really a labor of love on Kendra's part. I do not and have not seen anything from the woman who will be succeeding her in Congress is having a big passion for space. Let me go to Mr. Serrano first because he was this CJS chair. He was from New York City and was never a huge space booster, but he appreciated the value NASA into the importance of having a decently funded space agency what it meant to the nation. And he actually worked pretty well with his Republican counterpart, the ranking member of that subcommittee, a gentleman by the name of Robert Aderholt from Alabama, whose district is not far from Huntsville. It also has residing in his district, the United Launch Alliance Decatur, Alabama rocket factory where the Atlas and Deltas are manufactured eventually the new Vulcan rockets will be manufactured.
Brendan Curry: And so, Mr. Serrano, many ways differed a decent amount on Space Policy and space funding issues to Mr. Aderholt in order to get the larger CJS bill dragged across the finish line in as much of a bipartisan manner as possible. Mr. Serrano's replacement, a gentleman by the name of Torres, chances are he's not going to have a lot to say about space. In fact, the chances of him even getting on the Appropriations Committee are pretty slim, to say the least. And the same thing for the person who's going to be replacing full committee Chairwoman Lowey, Mondaire Jones, again from New York City hasn't really said anything about space. And again, chances of getting on appropriations right out-
Casey Dreier: That's because appropriations is like a plum assignment. A lot of people want it. So there's some amount of you've either had to do a lot of service to the party or have some seniority or something. It's hard for a freshmen Congresspeople just to walk onto something like that.
Brendan Curry: You're 1,000% correct, Casey. Arguably, the two most powerful committees in the House representatives are the House Appropriations Committee in the House Ways and Means Committee. Now, the guys in the Ways and Means Committee will say they're more powerful, the appropriators will happily try to correct them and disabuse them of that notion and say, No, they have more power. But that's a little inside a congressional nerdy baseball there. As for some of the other retirements on the Appropriations Committee, you had Martha Roby, also from Alabama, she retired. She's being replaced by a fellow Republican by the name of Barry Moore.
Brendan Curry: And the Alabama delegation is a pretty small delegation. You look at a state like Florida or California or Texas, the number of members of the House from those states are in the dozens, whereas, some of the smaller states will have a handful. And Alabama falls into that category of being one of the smaller delegations thus, they all fly in a pretty tight formation. There's an excellent chance that Mr. Moore will be a pretty ardent supporter of anything that helps Alabama's space interest, but again, he is coming in as a freshman and the chances of him taking Ms. Roby seat on the Appropriations Committee is incredibly small.
Brendan Curry: Alabama is very well represented in the Appropriations Committee, with the seniority of Mr. Aderholt as being the ranking member, but also on the Senate side with Mr. Shelby chairing the entire Senate Appropriations Committee. And then with respect, the other retirement on the CJS Appropriations Subcommittee is a gentleman named Tom Graves from Georgia. He's being replaced by another Republican, Marjorie Green. Mr. Graves was really never an out now champion too much for space. I don't expect Ms. Green to be too different. But again, she'll be a lowly freshmen, and the chances of taking Mr. Graves seat on the Appropriations Committee is pretty slim to none.
Brendan Curry: So with respect to Roby seat on the Appropriations Committee, and Grave seat on the Appropriations Committee, that gets exactly what we were talking about earlier, is that the party leadership in the House is going to look and say, "Well, who deserves Roby seat? Who deserves Grave seat? And we'll give it to them." And that that gets into some messy politicking, to be candid.
Mat Kaplan: Much more of this month's Space Policy edition is just ahead. Brendan, Casey, and I hope you'll stick with us through this break.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: What a year it has been for space exploration. Hi, I'm Sarah, digital community manager for the Planetary Society. Will you help us celebrate 2020's greatest accomplishments? You can cast your votes for the most stunning image, the most exciting mission, the most surprising discovery, and more at planetary.org/bestof2020. We've also got special year-end content on our social media channels. Voting is open now at planetary.org//bestof2020.
Mat Kaplan: The overarching phrase that comes to mind as I listen to all of this is so many moving parts. I wonder if we maybe can move back over to the executive side and talk about what's going on with this transition. I mentioned those agency review teams, which anybody can see in the, it's at the buildbackbetter.com website. And among these is this group of people who are going to be looking at how NASA may run during a Biden administration.
Mat Kaplan: Brendan, you've been through a lot of these transitions, does this one look like it's going to stand out as it appears to be?
Brendan Curry: The transition teams, they always are a little bit different. They're not always carbon copies of the previous one. They take on a flavor of whoever the new president is and his team and his ethos, if you will. Sometimes they're called beachhead teams more colloquially. And it's just to start getting the incoming administration, having people in these agencies and obviously, we were focusing on NASA, but it's across all the major departments and agencies in the federal government and it's basically to make sure that there's some modicum of continuity between the outgoing political appointees from the departing administration, to have some orderly changeover with the new administration, all while keeping the permanent civil servant people apprised of what the outgoing folks are doing, and what the incoming folks are looking forward to doing or trying to doing and getting assessments of where things are.
Brendan Curry: And then the transition team then reports back to the leadership of the transition efforts, who are a circle of people much closer to the incoming president. And they not to be crass, but try to give the incoming administration idea of where the bodies are buried and where there may be some issues that need to be addressed sooner rather than later and trying to help the incoming administration get a handle on the health and status of a particular department or agency. If everything's good, great. That's fine. If there's a problem, okay, where is that problem? Does it need immediate triage or it's something that can be managed?
Brendan Curry: A lot of the talk right now is who'll replace Mr. Bridenstine as NASA administrator. This transition team is also going to be charged with going in there and seeing where there may be issues of concern at the agency that may help inform who they decide that the president needs to nominate to run the agency. They may find out that there's a particular area that needs to be addressed. And it is of such a concern or of such a size that it may be felt that are recommended to the president that an agency head needs to have a certain skill set to address that.
Brendan Curry: The NASA team, there's a lot of no surprises with the folks who were listed on that. David Noble and Mr. Weaver, they were previously at NASA during the Obama years.
Mat Kaplan: That's David Weaver, who's now with the airline pilots Association. And David Noble, who interestingly is listed as being with the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
Brendan Curry: Yeah, he did some time over at the agency as well. And Pam Melroy is very highly regarded a former NASA astronaut and Ellen Stofan, who was formerly at the agency as well, but currently at the Smithsonian, is incredibly well regarded. Interestingly enough for our space fans, elsewhere, in some of the other review teams, transition teams, you have former astronaut Kathy Sullivan, who used to be at NOAA. NOAA is within the Department of Commerce, she's on the transition team for commerce. So she's back there, which is interesting.
Brendan Curry: And then on the Department of Energy side, you have a woman by the name of Madeline Creed. And what's of interest to Space fans there is that she was a longtime Senate Armed Services Committee staffer whose areas of expertise are not only nuclear weapons, hence, her opposition with the transition team of Department of Energy, but also military space issues. So she's quite familiar with space, primarily from a national security perspective. But also she's very well versed on civil space issues.
Brendan Curry: And the Department of Energy has been starting to get more vocal about wanting to be a better partner for space exploration in terms of nuclear power generation for missions, but also nuclear propulsion for missions. So I took note of that when I was going through these various transition teams across the board.
Mat Kaplan: You got two former NASA Chief scientists here, Ellen Stofan, who you mentioned, and Waleed Abdalati, who's now at the University of Colorado, Boulder, very significant. Casey.
Casey Dreier: The transition teams, they're influential, but they're not setting policy. They're basically fact-finding teams in the sense as to summarize what Brendan was just saying. And to some extent, they're symbolic. I think it's notable that there are two chief scientists who were part of this team and with one of them running it, maybe telling us something about a Biden administration's approach to NASA as a primarily a science organization. But also, we're seeing just a number of very thoughtful people included in it and a relatively larger team that I believed in last time through the Trump administration.
Casey Dreier: The listeners of this show will recognize [inaudible 00:29:49] as one of the transition team members who was a guest of ours a few months ago. And Ellen Stofan, of course, has been on Planetary Radio a number of times and I'm sure some of those other transition team members have also graced this show over the years, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: A couple. I find it interesting, do either of you guys that there are no representatives from the aerospace industry in this group?
Casey Dreier: Yeah. I think that's one of those symbolic statements similar with a lot of the other departments' transition teams, that there's much less representation from industry in general throughout the transition.
Brendan Curry: Yeah, the Biden campaign and I may not get this 100% correct verbatim, but they're they came out over the summer with some larger policy directives with respect to their transition team about if you're an executive at a company, and this doesn't just relate to NASA, but again, any department or agency, the Biden campaign, and eventually, transition leadership would have you undergo an ethics review process, and there'd be a whole waiver process, et cetera. So I think they were early on signaling how they wanted the complexion of their transition teams to lock-in.
Brendan Curry: And the other thing, by the way, is just because someone who's a member of a transition team doesn't automatically mean they're going to be staying on. It's not unusual for people to take time out of their lives and spend, in some cases, a lot of time away from their families because they believe in some service to the government in their proponents of the incoming administration, no matter who it may be. They believe in what they're trying to do and want to do their part and serve a role in a transition team, but then go back to their normal life that they do not have any interest in staying on in a long-term fashion. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don't.
Mat Kaplan: Every one of these people name to this transition team for NASA. They're all volunteers. You mentioned in passing, and Casey, I think you were the first who told me that Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of NASA, has already said that even if he were asked by the Biden ministration to remain on that he might be leaving, is that hearsay or is that something that's come from the administrator?
Casey Dreier: The administrator himself has said that he would not stay on in a Biden administration. I think it's telling him quite complimentary, that you've seen quite a few people online and other commentators express their desire to see him continue in the job that he's been a positive and very, I think, enthusiastic supporter of NASA. He's done a good job representing NASA itself and respecting the agency and the history in which it came from and trying to maintain that appeal broadly to the public.
Casey Dreier: But at the same time, as we've seen with changes in the past or administrations in the past, White House and the President, they have the right and the preference, generally, to appoint people who they trust and who are aligned with them politically and in the vision that they're going to bring to the agency. Jim Bridenstine has been, I think, a very good NASA administrator. But he's also a conservative ex-Republican Congressperson who has a future career likely in that world that he'd probably rather pursue than working with a White House who may or may not share his view for NASA.
Casey Dreier: And so really, we saw this with Charlie Bolden, who resigned his role at NASA on January 20th when President Obama left in 2017. And it's very common that this is not unusual. I think what is somewhat unusual, though, is that we saw some reporting as we're recording this today from Eric Berger at Ars Technica, saying that Jim Bridenstine's tenure at NASA was very much limited anyway. It was very likely that if President Trump had won a second term, that he would have asked for Bridenstine's resignation and appointed a new NASA Administrator sometime in the next few months.
Casey Dreier: So Bridenstine has done a good job, but he'll be a relatively short-term administrator no matter who would have won this election.
Brendan Curry: Fascinating. It's not unusual if a president does get a second term that a lot of the senior appointees do depart anyways. And just that Mr. Bridenstine does have very small children back home in Oklahoma, even despite the virus and being quarantined for extended periods of time, there are challenges on the home front that everyone's going through right now that I think he wants to be able to address in a much more meaningful manner considering the demands that being head of the agency requires with him.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, it's not an easy job for anyone to do long-term. We've seen relatively short 10 years of NASA administrators before so this isn't unusually short. He really, in a sense, was like NASA's number one fan and that was really refreshing to see and really, it was inspiring to seeing him excited as a NASA administrator still getting really, just geeking out in some of the stuff that NASA does. As for a future administrator, this is going to be a game now for the next few months, the administrator shuffle, or musical chairs or however game metaphor you'd like to throw in here.
Casey Dreier: It's a process that'll take some time. And then, of course, it's subject to Senate confirmation, which may or may not depend on, depending on who the pick is Republican Senate or a Democratic Senate could have two very different implications for who the NASA administrator is next under President Biden.
Mat Kaplan: Is there any speculation underway? Are we hearing names of any individuals with the caveat that this is only at the rumor stage Probably right now?
Casey Dreier: Oh, indeed, we are Mat. The rumor mill is already generating. Brendan, you want to drop a few of the names that we've all heard about circulating?
Brendan Curry: The one I keep hearing constantly is Casey Dreier.
Casey Dreier: Hey, source is here first.
Mat Kaplan: That's an exclusive. Anyone can float something and say, "I hear Casey is under consideration." And that's like the level of credulity to have with a lot of these.
Casey Dreier: And it's going to get picked up probably by more than one journalistic channel. Yeah.
Brendan Curry: And again, this is not just something that takes place with respect to NASA. You have people who want the job, but they can't be seen too much as wanting the job, if you know what I mean. Because that will raise antennas with folks who are closer to the incoming president, why does this person really want this job so much? That sets them on edge a little bit. So sometimes there'll be surrogates to those people going out in proselytizing and trying to socialize that person's name. It's a high wire act, really. There's been some retired astronaut names every now and then. There's some industry executives.
Brendan Curry: But the other thing is when you especially in a venue like this that's listened to so many people, the folks that are seriously interested, they don't want to see their name in print or don't want to have their names being publicly bandied about. It's a weird process. It really is. There's people who will be looking at this transition team list and will extrapolate that they could envision some of these at least two or three of these people as serious contenders.
Brendan Curry: The other challenge for the administration, though, is that NASA is not a cabinet position. If you're a NASA Administrator, you're not like the Secretary of State, you're not like the Secretary of Transportation or defense or anything like that. Those high-level political appointees, by and large, need to be squared away first, and then agencies like NASA get addressed, and then you go down the list, and then 8, 9, 10 months later, then you're wondering about who's going to be made the President's nomination to run the National Endowment of the humanities.
Brendan Curry: So it's a pyramid structure of sorts. And this administration is coming in with a lot of expectations and a lot of things they want to address right out of the gate. Namely, with respect to the virus in how they handle that, we had a flurry of high-level Pentagon resignations last night that's going to put a lot of pressure on filling those positions up very soon, especially, God forbid, if we have some sort of geopolitical crisis in the interim.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, God forbid. More generally, before we leave this and maybe look across the world a little bit. There has been a good deal of speculation about the Biden ministration perhaps restoring a lot of emphasis on earth science, although that was not diminished, as some people feared as much anyway, as it would be during the Trump administration, largely thanks to the House in the Senate. What do you guys hear about the priorities that the Biden administration may have for space? We heard last month on this show from Jeb Faust, Casey, that there isn't a whole lot known.
Casey Dreier: That's still true. There hasn't been a significant additional amount of information or really any additional amount of policy insight. Again, we can just summarize, I think our observations and guesses are still valid, where we can just say, in the absence of clear information, we have the Democratic party platform, which mentions climate, which mentions Moon to Mars, which mentions ISS, we have the overall campaign goals or policy goals of the Biden upcoming presidency as outlined in his campaign, and we can try to align like what parts of NASA, what is it doing now that align with those priorities stated by the campaign? And that's where you get climate change and addressing climate or science in looking back again to that role under the Obama administration being likely a priority for the administration and NASA, the likely delay of the 2024 lunar landing goal and possible reformulation of that project to have a potentially different approach, though, there's less information about how that would happen. So that's where I looked at some of the House Democratic policy proposals.
Casey Dreier: But given again, the very tight or Republican-run Senate, I don't think you'll be seeing a ton of major program changes at NASA because politically, there's going to be a lot going on. And the Biden administration is not going to want to spend a lot of political capital on NASA if it doesn't have to. It rather focus on other areas that are more salient and near and dear to its heart. And so I think we're still at this role where it seems like Moon to Mars will remain the overall goal. And it seems likely given the future issues with likely budget restrictions, priorities, or science that we will see the slip of the lunar program get pushed back, if not reconsidered altogether.
Mat Kaplan: Interesting to to read in this new budget proposed by the Senate, which as you said, Brendan, may not even get a vote before it goes into negotiations. That though it had a pretty good level of funding for NASA has a pretty good level of funding for NASA. It pretty vastly underfunded the Artemis moon effort and the plans that would have enabled us maybe to put, as they love to say, the next man and the first woman on the moon in 2024.
Brendan Curry: There was a lot of skepticism when they were able to do the few hearings that they did do this year with respect to Moore's degree of specifics in details with respect to the human landing procurement programs or effort for the Artemis program. And clearly, the agency has not been able... Whatever information they have provided has not reached a satisfactory level for the Senate to fund it at the level that the agency wanted it. It doesn't come as a surprise really to anyone.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, I think this is notable. Even if President Trump had won a second term, 2024 was functionally Not going to happen at this point. And the final nail in that coffin I think was the Senate budget, which again, is a budget prepared by the Republican-controlled Senate. So his own party did not provide the funding requested for NASA to get this going. And if you don't get that money upfront, if you don't get it when you need it early on, there's no hope. Even if you backfill that money later on, you can't get that time back. And so, 2024 is functionally dead regardless.
Casey Dreier: That's where having a plan for a longer, sustainable approach to the moon will probably be one of those items that this NASA transition team highlights as something that the next administrator will have to deal with and find some solution to.
Mat Kaplan: We just saw, in the last few days a celebration of the signing of the Artemis accords by a number of the United States international partners. Artemis has come up just in passing a couple of times already. But does it look like this is something that's going to continue to move forward? And more broadly, I'm sure all of our international partners are watching very carefully as this transition continues. How does this affect us on the space front?
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Brendan, you're a lawyer, right? How are we bound to support Artemis with these agreements we've made with other nations?
Brendan Curry: What I thought was an interesting, actually one of the things I did when I was in law school was I studied the space station agreements that we did. Those were agreements that proved to be incredibly resilient through... They started actually being put together in the Reagan administration. And here we are in 2020. They're not treaty treaties in the traditional sense, they do not need to be ratified by the Senate. Personally, I think Artemis accord is just a term of word that sounds very flowery. And I think it sounds nice and sounds very cool. Sounds very historic. The historian nerd in me thinks they sound great.
Brendan Curry: But they're essentially memorandums of understanding. I think our allies and partners were thirsting for something's essentially written down. We did that with station. Again, they've proved to be bulletproof. And I think these accords are going to follow in a similar manner.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, I think one of those things where we can look at how Biden as a senator in his political career, and even how he ran, he didn't run as a radical, in a sense. He's not here to rip things up and start fresh. He generally, I'd say, is what I would consider a small c conservative, particularly when it comes to international relationships. And I think they would carefully consider any significant changes to pre-existing agreements that NASA has made with its international partners before changing them. That doesn't mean it can't happen but I think there would at least be some careful consideration before they[crosstalk 00:45:44]
Brendan Curry: Yeah. After we lost Columbia in George W. Bush moved out on essentially what was to become constellation and now is essentially the Artemis program. But early on, there was consternation and anxiety that I saw exhibited in Washington amongst our partners, our international friends and allies, many of whom have offices and representatives here in DC, that the then Bush administration didn't almost immediately move out in some sort of codification of an international component set in stone with the then constellation, you had some talk about the NASA administrator at the time, Sean O'Keefe, and then also echoed by Mike Griffin about, well, we the United States are going to say we're going to provide A, B, and C. But we're going to eat X, Y, and Z also provided to execute on this mission, we'll let you guys decide amongst yourselves who can provide X, Y, and Z.
Brendan Curry: Our friends and allies really had trouble trying to discern amongst themselves who would provide X, Y, and Z, and whether that would be acceptable to NASA. And it was almost like they wanted NASA to say, "Okay, we need you to provide X. You over there, you need to provide Y. You over there, we really need you to provide Z." Because that then enabled them to go back to their home governments and say, "This is what the United States needs for us. Let's put together a plan and fund it and go back to United States and say, "Yes, we will provide this component of this mission."
Brendan Curry: And I think the Artemis accords finally got around to doing that and giving the political coverage for our friends and allies to go back to their home governments and to say, "Yes, this is for real. If we want to take part in it, we better." And it needed to happen, I guess, is what I'm trying to communicate.
Mat Kaplan: It reminds me of that old saying, when the United States sneezes, the world catches a cold.
Casey Dreier: Well, just to go back to the international aspect here, and how the Biden administration is going to approach some of these agreements. This is one of the reasons why I'm also bullish on the future of both Gateway and the Mars Sample Return projects. So Mars Sample Return now is just getting ramped up, it will be entering formal startup formulation probably next month. But we have a very strong collaboration established now with the European Space Agency. And it's not severable on the way that ExoMars was, for those of you who remember the debacle around that when NASA canceled its contribution to this dual Mars mission back in the early 2010, 2011.
Casey Dreier: We can't separate Mars Sample Return contributions from NASA and ISA, they are tightly coupled. That's probably not an accident. They did that on purpose. But now in order to cancel Mars Sample Return, you have to basically really screw over your European partners because they've made contracts, they've begun funding this mission on their contribution, they're going to depend on the United States to come through on their commitment. So that's, I think, a good sign. And that's an area, again, where I don't see the Biden ministration just casually dismissing that.
Casey Dreier: Gateway is similar. Gateway has a number of international contributions that are being built upon the International Space Station agreements for contributions from Canada, Japan, European Space Agency, and others. That is something that has a lot more international buy-in than anything on the surface of the moon that NASA is planning. And I think that will help significantly in terms of maintaining the political coalition necessary to continue with something like Gateway, potentially at the expense of surface operations at the moon going forward. Despite the fact that we're starting to see Gateway run into some budget trouble and design trouble that which we can talk about in a future episode, it has the most international buy-in of the lunar projects so far.
Casey Dreier: And I think that's a very notable and important aspect to keep in mind when determining what projects will continue forward under a Biden administration in which may not.
Mat Kaplan: Casey, I wonder if you could talk about the resources that the Planetary Society is providing, will continue to provide, as we follow this developing situation, this transition to new leadership in Washington. We have a lot of stuff on the website, much of which you maintain.
Casey Dreier: Yep. So we will have a or we have a post summarizing some of these congressional shuffle that we talked about on the show today. I maintain a regular tracking detail of updates of what's happening to NASA's fiscal year budget. All of those are available. If you go to planetary.org/space-policy, that's hard to say.[crosstalk 00:50:48] Or just go to planetary.org and look for Space Policy. So we'll have articles on this. We track the budget, and we'll be preparing to reach out to the transition team itself in the course the future administration, in the next Congress, both Republican and Democrat, to represent the planetary society's members interests going forward. And, of course, our core goals do not change. The administration may change, the Congress may change, our goals do not. We're focused on planetary exploration, the search for life and planetary defense. And we will continue to work with who is in power here in the US government and abroad to make sure those things are a high priority going forward.
Mat Kaplan: Meanwhile, this program getting published on the 13th of November, well, about 24 hours away from the first operational Commercial Crew launch of a Crew Dragon. And we learned just hours ago, that it has been certified by NASA, something else that we're excited about, which is somewhat independent of everything we've been discussing over the last hour.
Casey Dreier: I'll take the happy happiness and joy of watching astronauts launch into space on a relatively new launch vehicle and capsule. I enjoyed that back in May, during the initial burst of COVID. I will savor this now during this period of political tumultuousness that we're in.
Brendan Curry: One of the crew members is from Japan, one of our allies. And I can personally attest he's a heck of a karaoke singer.
Mat Kaplan: Okay. Well, I want to hear more about that in another episode, maybe we can convince him to do a little singing on a future Space Policy Edition. Brendan, in the days and weeks leading up to January 20th, what's going to be keeping you busy?
Brendan Curry: Just tracking, obviously, the transition efforts, but finding out who's going to be leading these committees that we care about, like we've talked about before, most of the activities can be more on the House side. If there's someone who's been a big space booster on one of these committees we care about, then gets a different committee assignment, who replaces them. One other thing that we're going to be keenly interested in seeing is if the White House space council will continue under our President Biden.
Brendan Curry: Again, that could be fodder for another episode down the line. But that's something else that a lot of folks, not only Casey and myself, but other folks here in Space Policy community here in Washington are keenly focused on. There's no question that NASA is still going to be around in a Biden administration, and the agency isn't going anywhere. So we all know that, it's just who's going to be at the top of the food chain there within the agency. But there is absolutely no guarantee that we will see a continuation of the National Space Council.
Brendan Curry: And if it is, well, Vice President Harris have the level of interest that Vice President Pence has had, et cetera. So there's a lot to talk about.
Mat Kaplan: Just fascinating. Casey, anything else to add?
Casey Dreier: I think from this point, we're going to be looking at the changes coming up in Congress. And we will be, again, tracking those very closely. We'll have more to say about this when the new Congress begins in January. So we'll follow up on some of these key items at that point. And from here on out, I'm looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas personally.
Mat Kaplan: Good for you. And May those holidays be very safe and joyful for both of you guys. We will, of course, be talking again, on I hope, the first Friday in December, unless there are some very good reason for us to push that back.
Casey Dreier: We'll go jump away from US politics for a while. For the first time in a while, we'll just have a good old discussion of Apollo and some of its implications for international policy and what it was useful for, and why it happens. We'll do a good historical policy with a big chunk of Apollo to talk about just in time for Apollo 14, let's say, 50th anniversary coming up.
Mat Kaplan: I look forward to hearing it. And Brendan, I look forward to hearing from you again. Thank you for the great work that you do on behalf of the Planetary Society there in Washington DC. You're unable to do that, all of us are able to do our jobs because of the members of the Planetary Society. If you are one of them, we thank you. We are grateful. If you are not and you've enjoyed what you've just listened to, please visit planetary.org/membership because that's where you can learn how you can stand behind the Space Policy Edition, the great work that Casey and Brendan do on our behalf, and everything else, all the other great work that the Planetary Society is up to. Again, planetary.org/membership. Lots of levels, lots of benefits. We hope to get you onboard and make you part of this great space family.
Mat Kaplan: Gentlemen, thank you so much for being part of this, and I look forward to talking again.
Casey Dreier: See you next month, Mat.
Brendan Curry: Thanks, guys. Good being with you. Looking forward the next time.
Casey Dreier: That was Brendan Curry, the chief of Washington operations for the Planetary Society. And just a moment before him, you heard Casey Dreier, Chief advocate and senior Space Policy Advisor for the society. I'm Mat Kaplan of Planetary radio. Of course, I'll be back Wednesday of next week with the regular edition of Planetary radio. Hope you will tune in for that as we talk to the leaders of science operations for two long-time orbiters at Mars, Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Till then, stay well, stay healthy, and we'll be talking to you again soon. Ad astra.