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VP Harris Lays Out Cooperative Policy Roadmap

VP Harris is flanked by members of the National Space Council during their meeting on December 20, 2023.
Credit: NASA

At the National Space Council meeting on December 20, 2023, Vice President Kamala Harris and her advisors announced that the Artemis Program will land an international astronaut on the moon “before the end of the decade.” This announcement came alongside several new initiatives and frameworks for international cooperation, highlighting the collaborative nature of the American space industry. 

The meeting was split into three distinct components: Partnerships for US Leadership and Strength, Earth Benefits and Climate, as well as International Partnerships for Human Exploration, with a focus on leading the return to the Moon. Each of these was highlighted with the theme of collaboration and cooperation on a competitive global landscape, identifying recent progress made by peer-competitor agencies in Russia and China. 

Lunar cooperation, in the Artemis age, was a central focus for the meeting, with the council highlighting several elements in which international cooperation would play a large role. Notably, the Vice President announced that the Artemis program would land an international astronaut alongside a NASA astronaut “before the end of the decade,” which comes amid a concerning GAO report on the Artemis Program’s schedule readiness. This, alongside a push for further signatures of the Artemis Accords, indicates a desire to maintain strong global cooperation and compliance on the Lunar surface. The Council also highlighted several elements which international agencies will contribute to the Artemis program, including the ESA/JAXA I-HAB, ESA’s ESPRIT, and CSA’s Canadarm3 for Gateway, to be launched alongside Orion missions onboard SLS. International contributions for surface architecture were also discussed, including an Italian surface habitat, Japanese pressurized rover and other cargo delivery systems to enable sustainable, long term lunar exploration. Another topic of the meeting was new architectural possibilities on the lunar surface, including radio astronomy. It was announced that the National Science Foundation, alongside NASA, will be exploring possibilities for deploying radio telescopes in the “shielded” zone of the moon, positioned on the Lunar Far Side.  

A concept for potential Lunar radio telescopes, which NASA and the National Science Foundation were directed to study.
Credit: Vladimir Vustyansky

The Vice President and her council members reiterated the need for US strength and leadership in the space defense sector, highlighting their work on establishing and maintaining a moratorium on anti-satellite missile testing, with 36 nations acting in accordance to date. This comes after the highly destructive 2021 Russian anti-satellite test that forced members of ISS Expedition 66 to shelter in place as the International Space Station came close to encountering debris. The Council also highlighted several collaborations in space defense, building on years of cooperation in the field. These include hosted payloads on Norwegian and Japanese satellites for telecommunications and space domain awareness. Notably, the AUKUS agreement indicated a need for Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability to characterize and track assets in deep space, both for natural and artificial objects. This capability was recently recommended by a recent bipartisan House of Representatives committee, as well as placing assets at Earth-Moon Lagrange points for space domain awareness.

A map of the Earth’s Lagrange points, a key element in strategic Space Domain Awareness architecture.
Credit: NASA

International collaboration for tackling the climate crisis was discussed at length, with Vice President Harris and Deputy National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi pointing to space as an important step for monitoring our changing planet. The joint NASA/ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar Mission, slated for launch in 2024, aims to map the planet’s surface in extreme detail, and monitor the impact of human activity across the surface. The joint US-Italian Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols, or MAIA instrument, will also launch in 2024 with the goal of categorizing global emissions and their health impacts, with an emphasis on the Global South. Capabilities such as these are essential in identifying and tackling emissions on global scale, and assisting developing nations in achieving sustainability. The need for climate monitoring was stressed by the Council as an important national asset, underscoring the need to respond quickly to potential disasters across both hemispheres. The National Science Foundation and various other domestic agencies will also be collaborating on responses to space weather events, and developing frameworks for the protection of orbital and terrestrial assets in the face of possible solar activity. 

A key element stressed at the December 20th meeting was the need for new frameworks in operations, and the implementation of new strategies for maintaining capability in a competitive landscape. Notably, the Council discussed the implementation of a new series of principles dictating oversight and regulation. A new, joint task force, consisting of the Department of Transportation and Department of Commerce, would be established to recommend best practices to private sector groups, with the intention of providing additional oversight and regulation in the growing space sector. Initial activities of this task force would be identifying and harmonizing international launch and re-entry licensing as well as developing new orbital debris mitigation strategies, establishing a global standard for access to space. This task force also seeks to foster new cooperation across international private sector activity, to develop a strong network of partners in all sectors. Additionally, the Council stressed the need to maintain capability, and discussed the establishment of a Next Generation Low Earth Orbit National Laboratory to replace the facilities lost when ISS is deorbited in the early 2030s. This, coupled with the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development program, aim to field a series of new stations developed by commercial partners. 

Space remains a critical component of the United States’ national strategy, and a key element in maintaining international leadership. The meeting of the National Space Council serves as a reminder that the business of space is an intersectional one, coupling human factors, policy, and engineering challenges into one interdisciplinary field. The United States’ recent announcements of extensive international cooperation serve to reiterate its commitment to the peaceful and proliferated use of space for citizens of planet Earth.    

Edited by Beverly Casillas

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