The SpaceX Dragon vessel that splashed down near Tampa Bay on Wednesday marked the first time an unmanned ship carrying cargo from the International Space Station landed in the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s the latest — and perhaps final — historic breakthrough achieved by America’s space program under President Donald Trump as he turns over the country’s galactic aspirations to a new commander in chief, Democrat Joe Biden.
As a candidate, the former vice president presented exhaustive plans on dozens of issues, yet he said relatively little about his vision for exploring the final frontier. The Democratic Party platform, approved at the August convention, made only a passing promise to “support NASA’s work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars.”v
Biden will soon face difficult decisions about the future of American interests in space. Enthusiasm for space exploration has reached levels not seen since the Apollo missions — but Biden also will quickly confront the challenges of a growing military presence by the United States and foreign adversaries from the sky.
Former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a champion of the space program during his four decades in public office, said he expects Biden, a close friend, to advance a space agenda after tackling the coronavirus and the unstable economy.
“He appreciates science,” the Florida Democrat said.
Rarely can advancements in space exploration be credited to a single administration, experts told the Tampa Bay Times. President John F. Kennedy famously announced in 1962 the United States’ intention to go to the moon, but it was President Richard Nixon who watched from the White House as Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the lunar surface seven years later.
Nevertheless, the achievements of America’s space program under Trump are undeniable, and its impact on Florida, home to the Kennedy Space Center, have been significant. More than 10 million viewers tuned in last May as Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent the first manned commercial flight beyond Earth’s atmosphere from Cape Canaveral. It was one of a record 31 launches there in 2020, surpassing the previous mark, set in 1966.
The resurgence has reinvigorated a Space Coast that “lost its identity” after the shuttle program ended in 2011, said Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, who has made the state’s space industry one of her priorities. The area became “economically depressed,” she said, but is now booming with subcontractors and other economic development.
Blue Origin, the private rocket company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has planned $1 billion of investments in Brevard County, including a $52 million, 180,000-square-foot manufacturing plant. However, SpaceX ultimately decided to build a launch site in Texas, sparking some fears that Florida could someday lose its distinction as the nation’s launch capital.
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“The space industry has been a shining star — steady growth, investment, companies moving to the region,” Nuñez said. “It’s a lot of excitement that you hadn’t seen in a while.”
This era of space exploration is being led by private companies, supported by NASA’s infrastructure and know-how. It’s a public-private partnership that has spanned three presidents — initiated under George W. Bush, accelerated by Barack Obama and realized by Trump — and it will enter its next phase under Biden. Within the next decade, that could include mining on asteroids for rare metals, an area of great potential but one that could generate friction between countries and commercial enterprises without international cooperation, Nelson said.
An early test for Biden will be whether to adjust expectations for America’s planned return to the moon. The Trump administration announced the $28 billion Artermis program to much fanfare, calling it the first stop on the way to Mars. In Cape Canaveral last month, Vice President Mike Pence doubled down on the administration’s promise to put a woman on the moon by 2024.
Roger Handberg, a space policy professor at the University of Central Florida, said that’s an aggressive and unlikely timeline given the dangers of the mission and the work still to be done.
“The expectation is Biden will stick with (the Artemis program), but 2024 is dead,” Handberg said. “(NASA has) killed too many people and when push comes to shove, they probably will delay the first flights.”
Biden also must soon decide whether to support Trump’s creation of a military branch called Space Force. The idea was panned by late-night talk show hosts and in a star-studded Netflix comedy of the same name. Some Democrats shrugged off the idea as not serious while others called it an unnecessary expansion of an already bloated Department of Defense budget.
Trump marched ahead undeterred, assigning Space Force a four-star general and initiating a national search for a command headquarters. At the end of last year, the Pentagon had narrowed the location to six sites, including Brevard County’s Patrick Air Force Base. Nuñez expected Florida, already home to the U.S. Central and Southern Commands and the Special Operations Command, would be competitive in the selection process. On Wednesday, the Air Force said Huntsville, Ala., was its preferred location.
U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz, a St. Augustine Republican, said he will urge the Biden administration to follow through on Space Force. Waltz, who sits on both the House Armed Services and Science, Space, and Technology committees, said Russia and China have swiftly expanded capabilities to attack from above and America risks falling behind if it doesn’t match them.
“Every single war game we run now, the first shots are fired in cyber and space,” Waltz said. “As a country, we need a wake-up call. I hope the Biden administration ... gets it as well.”
Nelson, who opposed the creation of the Space Force, conceded that it’s too late to rein it in, and he expects Biden will continue to treat it as a separate branch under the purview of the Air Force.
The broader space community anticipates that Biden will utilize NASA’s technology and scientists in his efforts to curb global warming. Amy Foster, a space historian at the University of Central Florida, said it’s a practical use of the existing technology and budget and one that fits with the long-standing mission of the International Space Station. Nelson agreed.
“One of the big themes of the Biden administration will be climate change and what better than all of the space assets for measuring put up by NASA and (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to cooperate with each other and help,” Nelson said. “I think you will see a considerable synergy there.”
Biden’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
Florida’s space industry insiders did not expect to flourish under Trump. Like Biden, he spoke little about it as a candidate. However, Trump eventually grew enamored with the idea of going to Mars as a way to burnish his legacy and push a nationalist agenda, Handberg said. He brought back the National Space Council, disassembled under Obama, and even his detractors acknowledged the move was critical in making space a priority.
Now, an industry that has experienced cyclical growth since its founding is bracing for whatever changes Biden might bring. But optimism persists, said Dale Ketcham, the vice president of government and external relations at Space Florida, an organization created by the state to grow the aerospace industry.
“There is an understanding that this administration, like all administrations, will want to put its own fingerprints on NASA, which is their right and that’s expected,” Ketcham said.
He added: “The importance of space is undeniable and only growing.”