January 29, 2021 8:00 AM EST

Nobody was thinking much about the newly elected junior senator from Delaware back in December of 1972, when the Apollo 17 moonwalkers collected lunar sample 76015, 43. The senator was Joseph Biden, the moon walkers were Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan, and the rock was a 3.9-billion-year-old, 332 gram (0.73 lb.) sample collected in the moon’s Taurus-Littrow Valley.

Today, Schmitt is 85, Cernan has passed away, Biden is the 46th President of the United States and the rock rests on a bookshelf in his newly redecorated Oval Office, after he requested a lunar sample from NASA for display. For space lovers looking for reasons to be optimistic about what a Biden Administration will mean for NASA in general and the push to have American astronauts back on the moon in the 2020s in particular, that’s a good portent.

“I can’t conceive of Biden putting a moon rock in his office and then turning his back on a moon program,” says John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.

National policy is not built on such symbols. And the new president could be forgiven if he isn’t giving a thought to space. Inheriting a global pandemic, a stumbling economy, a climate in crisis and the scourge of racial inequity does not leave you a lot of room to get dreamy about the stars. But for all of the messes left behind by the last administration, former President Donald Trump did leave Biden a space sector in surprisingly good shape.

NASA does have its eyes set back on the moon, with the Artemis program aiming for a crewed lunar landing as early as 2024. Private space industry is thriving, with SpaceX having flown two crews to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Boeing preparing to follow later this year with its Starliner vehicle. The Perseverance Mars rover—carrying the little Ingenuity Mars helicopter—is set to land on the Red Planet next month. The National Space Council (NSC)—an executive branch advisory board first established under President Dwight Eisenhower and abandoned after the presidency of George H.W. Bush—was reestablished under Trump. An Administration with an NSC has historically been an Administration that prioritizes space—enough that it establishes a high-ranking body that has the President’s ear. And somewhat more controversially, Trump founded the Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military.

Unlike so many Trumpian policies, which generated ferocious debate, the direction of the space program seems to have broad popular support—especially the Artemis lunar initiative. Polls taken last year showed, for example, that 80% of Americans believed space travel supports scientific discovery; 78% had a favorable impression of NASA; 73% said NASA contributes to pride and patriotism; and 71% said NASA is not just a desirable agency, but a necessary one. None of that could have escaped Biden’s notice.

“The Congress has expressed its views on the importance of this activity. Industry has. Given that and the value to the nation, let’s just say that a new administration will recognize that and build that into its thinking and planning,” says Waleed Abdalati, a University of Colorado environmental scientist and a member of the Biden Administration’s NASA transition team.

But as with all matters Washington—to say nothing of all matters cosmic—things are more complex than they seem. Putting American boots on the moon by 2024 was always an overly ambitious target, especially with much of the hardware yet designed and built, let alone tested. Many critics find the Space Force a waste—a lot of money and personnel spent on a massive new bureaucracy tasked with a job protecting military satellites and other space assets that the Air Force has been doing perfectly well.

Biden has said nothing to date about whether he sees any value in continuing the NSC, and with the focus he has placed on addressing the climate crisis here on our own planet, it’s entirely possible that the NASA initiatives he prioritizes will have less to do with exploration and more to do with Earth science and observation missions.

President Joe Biden's redecoration of the Oval Office of the White House includes a rock from the moon, shown here on the bottom shelf on Jan. 20, 2021.
Alex Brandon—AP

Reading cosmic tea leaves

This early in any administration, prognostications about policy decisions are often based on what the new president said on the campaign trail. When it came to space, Biden didn’t say much. He did issue an anodyne statement congratulating SpaceX on its success in flying astronauts to the ISS last May. “Today, in lifting our ambitions and our imaginations to the heavens, the United States has once more reshaped the future of space travel,” he said. And While nobody puts much stock in political party platforms anymore, it did gladden space boosters that the Democrats’ 2020 document included the line, “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.”

Then too, there’s the president’s age. He’s 78, which means he remembers NASA’s golden era—the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s, with ever-bigger rockets blasting off on ever-more-ambitious journeys, culminating in the transcendent experience of trips to the moon. Get a taste of all that and you probably wouldn’t mind another. “President Biden was a young man during the Apollo days,” says Alan Stern, the leader of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the former head of the agency’s science mission directorate. “I’m sure he remembers how unifying it was for the nation. I’m sure he remembers how Apollo 8 [the first lunar orbital mission] saved 1968.”

The problem is in the dollars. Trump increased NASA’s budget steadily over the course of his four years in office, from $19.65 billion in 2017 to $23.3 billion in 2021. That still represents relative pan scrapings, however, with space agency funding making up just 0.4% of the national budget compared to 4% back in the mid-1960s. What’s more, the Trump Administration requested $3.2 billion in the 2021 budget for development of the Human Landing System (HLS), the Artemis project’s crewed lunar lander—but the House of Representatives agreed to just $600 million. You can hardly touch down on the moon without a vehicle to take you there, and there is no particular reason to see greater funding for one forthcoming given the current makeup of the House.

“The key players in the Congress haven’t changed very much [since the election], observes Logsdon. A House that slashed $2.6 billion from a budget request last time is unlikely to restore it now. That alone effectively puts the 2024 target out of reach.

One way around both the money and engineering challenges might be for NASA to partner more closely with private industry. The Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s new 36-story moon rocket, has been in start-stop development for more than 15 years and has still not flown. It, along with NASA’s Orion crew capsule, were set for a first, uncrewed flight around the moon in November of this year, but the failure of a “hot-fire” engine test on Jan. 16 will almost certainly set that back.

Meantime, private industry—most notably SpaceX, with its Crew Dragon spacecraft and its Falcon Heavy rocket—already has hardware available that could be pressed into service to speed the path to the moon. SLS is a bigger rocket, which could get a lunar orbiter and lander into space with a single launch, while it might take two Falcon Heavies to do the job—but the Falcon heavies are flying and the SLS isn’t, so the advantage would be clear. “I think there is a consensus on returning to the moon and a need to involve private partners,” says Scott Pace, a former member of the Trump Administration’s NSC and a professor at George Washington University.

“If [space policymakers] architect it properly, embrace the leverage of commercial space and let go of the notion that NASA has to do everything, I think 2026 or 2027 for a moon landing are realistic dates without increases in NASA’s budget,” says Stern.

Counselors and warriors

If Biden is to prioritize space, most observers think he’ll form his own NSC, following in the tradition of Eisenhower, H.W. Bush and Trump. Abdalati, expressing his own opinion, and not necessarily that of the transition team, sees not only value in having the council, but in having it chaired by the Vice President, as it was by former Veep Mike Pence. “Given the complexity of the space environment, a coordinated body that integrates every part of the country involved in the space domain is valuable,” he says. “The fact that it was a priority of Vice President Pence was also a good thing because it had visibility from the highest levels of the executive branch.”

Vice President Kamala Harris could have a similarly influential role if space is added to her portfolio—which it has not been as yet. But even if it isn’t—indeed, even if a new NSC is not formally reconvened in the Biden administration— elements of the Trump team remain. “The space council had funds appropriated by Congress already,” says Pace. “There are detailees and career staff who are there and they can continue the work if that’s what the administration wants.”

Space Force is here to stay in some capacity, though whether it will continue to exist as an independent branch of the military under its own flag, or whether its functions will be folded back into the Air Force, is unclear. The first option is clearly the more expensive one, if only because it necessitates establishing and maintaining whole new bureaucratic operations like personnel, payroll, housing and even uniform manufacture. But Stern, for one, thinks it may be worth the extra expense—in part because of the signal it sends.

“The Trump administration was ridiculed for forming a space force,” he says. “They were often made to look goofy. In reality many nations have formed space forces from our Russian adversaries to our European allies. We were really alone in not recognizing that protecting our assets should be under a unifying umbrella.”

Minding the planet

An even more existential threat comes not from America’s military rivals, but from the world’s ongoing fight against climate change. Biden has pledged to re-engage the U.S. in tackling the problem, and his day-one executive order to rejoin the Paris climate accords was a first shot in that fight. NASA has a role as well, maintaining a robust Earth observation program, which relies on both satellites and aircraft-based surveillance missions that both track short-term weather and long-term features of climate change like deforestation and glacier loss—and that role is likely to grow. “Democrats … support strengthening NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s [NOAA] Earth observation missions to better understand how climate change is impacting our home planet,” promised the Democratic platform. While environmentalists are cheered by that, exploration fans worry that climate research will eat the budgetary seed corn of space research.

“Right now, there’s a fairly balanced portfolio in NASA’s science mission directorate,” says Pace. “Could you do more Earth science at the margins? Of course you could. But in general, I wouldn’t want to see Earth science ramped up to the detriment of other parts of the portfolio.” One answer to the problem might lie in leaning more heavily on NOAA, which is part of the Department of Commerce and funded under its budget, to get the work done. “There is a demand for exquisite science information on climate,” says Pace. “The solution may not be NASA, but NOAA.”

For now, at least, no one pretends that the Biden administration will be judged principally on how it meets the challenges of space—not with the twin crises of the pandemic and the economy taking up most of the political oxygen. But history balances both the prose and the poetry of any presidency, and some of the greatest presidential poems of the last 100 years—that first lunar orbit, the first moonwalks, the thundering flights of the space shuttles—have been written in space. That fact can’t be lost on Biden. After nearly half a century in public service, he is surely both politician enough to know his immediate, practical priorities, and historian enough to know the more-lyrical legacy he’d also like to leave behind.

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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