What does the 2020 presidential election mean for space exploration?

The U.S. presidential election of 2020 between President Donald Trump (right) and former Vice President Joe Biden will determine NASA's future along with that of the United States.
The U.S. presidential election of 2020 between President Donald Trump (right) and former Vice President Joe Biden will determine NASA's future along with that of the United States. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Space is not one of the presidential election's big battlegrounds.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden haven't talked much about the final frontier during the 2020 race, which peaks today (Nov. 3) with Election Day. (That moniker is a bit misleading, however, given that more than 90 million people cast their ballots early and multiple states will be counting votes for days afterward.)

But a lot of us care deeply about the United States' space policy and how the next four years could shape it. Here's a brief rundown of where the two main candidates stand.

Related: Presidential Visions for Space: From Ike to Trump

Donald Trump

Trump has been quite active in the space-policy realm. For example, he resurrected the National Space Council, which had been dormant since the early 1990s. Vice President Mike Pence chairs the council, which serves to streamline the country's off-Earth plans and priorities. 

Trump has also signed five different space policy directives. The first of them, which amended and updated a directive issued by President Barack Obama in 2010, set the U.S. firmly on a crewed course to the moon and beyond

NASA is working to achieve these goals via its Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration, which aims to establish a sustainable human presence on and around the moon by 2028. The first crewed Artemis landing is currently targeted for 2024, an ambitious timeline Pence announced in 2019.

Two of the president's other space policy directives seek to streamline regulation of the commercial space industry and protocols for space traffic control. Another one aims to strengthen cybersecurity for space systems, and yet another directed the Department of Defense to create the U.S. Space Force.

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The Space Force, which was officially established in December 2019, is the nation's first new military branch since the Air Force was stood up in 1947. The Space Force is part of the Air Force, in the same way that the Marine Corps is part of the U.S. Navy.

The Space Force has been officially operating for less than a year, so it's unclear at the moment how much it will change the way the U.S. does business in space, especially given that many of its duties are ones the Air Force once performed. But the Space Force's existence does signal a commitment to treat space as an increasingly contested domain and to defend the United States' long-held off-Earth dominance more vigorously, priorities increasingly voiced by U.S. military officials over the past few years.

Trump also signed an executive order earlier this year stating that space mining is compatible with 1967's Outer Space Treaty, the backbone of international space law. This order affirmed a stance already taken by Congress, which in 2015 passed a law explicitly allowing American citizens and companies to use asteroid and moon resources, such as the lunar water ice that could sustain moon outposts.

The president has also consistently sought to increase NASA's budget during his term in office. Much of the increased funding has been earmarked for the crewed moon push; Earth science, on the other hand, has typically been targeted for cuts.

So, if a second Trump term looks like the first one, we can probably expect a continued stress on the commercialization of space, including the use of off-Earth resources; an ongoing push to protect American space assets and space dominance more broadly; and continued prioritization of NASA's crewed exploration programs, especially the drive to return astronauts to the moon quickly.

'By any means necessary': Vice President Pence urges NASA to the moon

Joe Biden

A discussion of Joe Biden's space policy is of course much more speculative, but we can make some educated guesses.

For example, some experts have predicted that U.S. space policy won't change dramatically if Biden wins the election. Such forecasts often cite the official Democratic Party Platform, which pledges continued support for NASA and space exploration more broadly.

"We support NASA's work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars, taking the next step in exploring our solar system," the platform reads, in part. (Whether the same urgency — getting boots back on the moon by 2024, for example — will apply is another question, however.)

But the next sentence highlights an important difference with the priorities of the current White House:  "Democrats additionally support strengthening NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth-observation missions to better understand how climate change is impacting our home planet."

That makes sense: Biden has said that combating climate change will be a priority of his administration if he wins the White House. That would be a departure from the current administration; President Trump has expressed skepticism about the reality and dangers of human-caused climate change.

Back on the similarities side, a President Biden might also be quite friendly to commercial spaceflight endeavors. After all, Biden served as vice president during the administration of President Barack Obama, whose federal budget requests directed NASA to hand off crewed operations in low Earth orbit to private astronaut taxis like SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. NASA's Commercial Crew Program got up and running in 2010 and awarded crew-carrying contracts to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014.

It's far too early to speculate about other important matters, such as whether a President Biden would keep on the current NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, or bring in his own pick. We'll just have to wait and see what Election Day and beyond have in store.   

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.