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1st Space Council meeting under VP Harris highlights climate change, competitiveness and responsible space behavior

A NASA camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite caught this view of Africa and the entire sunlit side of Earth on July 9, 2015.
A NASA camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite caught this view of Africa and the entire sunlit side of Earth on July 9, 2015. (Image credit: NASA)

It looks like planet Earth will get a healthy dose of attention in U.S. space policy going forward.

The National Space Council (NSC) met for the first time under Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday (Dec. 1). During the livestreamed event, which was held at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, Harris stressed that space planners should look down at their home planet as well as out into the cosmos.

"In this new era, we must see all the ways in which space can benefit Earth. We must see all the ways in which space can benefit the people of our nation and of all humanity," Harris said. "This perspective is central to our work as a council because, while exploration of space defined the 20th century, the opportunity of space must guide our work in the 21st."

Related: Presidential visions for space exploration: From Ike to Biden

Climate change, competitiveness and responsible space behavior

The NSC helps shape and steer U.S. space policy. It's composed of several dozen high-ranking government officials, from the NASA chief to the heads of the State and Defense departments to the vice president, who serves as council chair.

The NSC met eight times during the administration of President Donald Trump. Wednesday's event marked the first meeting of the council under Harris, offering a window into the space priorities of President Joe Biden.

That window was cracked open on Wednesday morning, when the White House released its "United States Space Priorities Framework." The seven-page document, which you can read in full here, lays out a handful of space-related principles and goals that the nation will strive toward over the next few years. 

Using space assets to monitor and help mitigate climate change is one of the priorities, as are helping to "uphold and strengthen a rules-based international order for space" and boosting American competitiveness by investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. 

Those were the three main focus areas during Wednesday's NSC meeting, with a panel dedicated to each topic. 

During the climate panel, Harris stressed the need to not only gather good Earth-observation data but also share it widely and efficiently, so that experts across various fields can make the best use of it. She said that she and other government officials are working to establish "a baseline of available space data and decision-making tools that are needed to tackle the climate crisis."

"I'm also asking the State Department to work with interagency partners to essentially develop a diplomatic approach that will expand the global leadership of the United States to strengthen our partnerships around the world using satellite data and the tools available to us," Harris added.

Russia's recent anti-satellite test, which generated more than 1,500 new pieces of trackable debris in low Earth orbit, came up repeatedly during the "space norms and rules" panel.

"Such a display of deliberate disregard for safety, stability, security and sustainability in space is one that is to be condemned and underscores the urgency of acting in defense of developing shared norms and having long-term sustainability of outer space," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks.

The ever-increasing space debris population poses a real threat to the use and exploration of space, experts say, and multiple panelists stressed that the nation is taking the problem seriously. For example, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said that his department aims to propose a new debris mitigation rule soon via the Federal Aviation Administration. 

"The idea, which we hope to be ready to propose in spring of 2022, is to make sure we're not creating unnecessary debris that would inhibit future space operations and that we have a means to take care of what is placed into orbit," Buttigieg said. The rule would apply only to commercial launches but would be informed by NASA documentation, he added.

Related: The Kessler Syndrome and the space debris problem

During the STEM panel, multiple speakers said that the United States is in real danger of losing the scientific and technological edge it has long held over most other nations.

"The United States is truly at an inflection point. The stakes are high, but the possibilities are endless and we cannot afford to fail," said Alondra Nelson, deputy director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. 

"It is crucial that everyone be able to participate in and contribute to science and technology, because it's the bedrock of new scientific and technological insights," Nelson added. "It's how America remains globally competitive and it is the right thing to do."

NASA chief Bill Nelson, who was also present at the council meeting, highlighted the role that space exploration can play in creating more American scientists and engineers.

"Just look at the sparkle in the eyes of little kids when the topic of space and spaceflight opens up," Bill Nelson said. "It opens their little minds into wanting to get involved. We saw that that was the case in the Apollo generation: For a couple of generations thereafter, look at the engineers and mathematicians and the technicians that we had."

New executive order, too

Wednesday was a busy day for the Biden administration on the space front. In addition to the meeting and the release of the space priorities document, the president issued an executive order that covers the duties, responsibilities and membership of the NSC.

Among other things, the order adds five new folks to the council: the National Climate Advisor and the secretaries of Education, Labor, Agriculture and the Interior.

"The broad membership of this council reflects our broad priorities as an administration," Harris said during the NSC meeting.  

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 on Facebook

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Mike Wall

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.