Having been persuaded by President Donald Trump to march in protest over his assertion (without believable evidence) that he had been robbed of election victory, a mob of his right-wing supporters went significantly beyond peaceful protest in Washington D.C. on 6 January. They violently forced an illegal entry into the Capitol building in Washington D.C in an attempt to prevent the formal certification of the US Presidential Election result. After some hours and five deaths (one by gunshots, one police officer), and a stand off with the police, the insurgents were eventually cleared from the building and the US Congress was finally able to formally certify the result that President Donald Trump had lost and that Joe Biden had won by a decisive measure.
It was a dramatic and sometimes traumatic day but one that ended in an eventual victory for freedom and democracy. Even so, critics decried the lack of security for what is effectively the home of the US equivalent of a parliament and the seat of its democracy, and pointedly noted the very obvious difference between the low level of policing at this protest relative to that at the anti-racism Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest held last year in Washington D.C.
President Trump himself has come under especially strong criticism – even from his own side – for inciting the protests which caused such mayhem. In reaction to the violence and the public backlash to it, some of Trump’s supporters on the Republican side of the US Senate specifically changed their votes in order to agree with certifying the election. Even Vice President Mike Pence reportedly turned against his boss, while two of Trump’s cabinet ministers resigned. It thought at one point that the cabinet might vote to remove Trump under the rules of the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution, but Vice President Mike Pence reportedly did not want to go that far, signaling that impeachment would be a more democratic route.
Update on 20 Jan 2021: The inauguration of President elect Joe Biden and his Vice President elect Kamala Harris took place successfully on 20 January.
With the threat of being impeached President Trump very belatedly condemned the rioters. However, it was too little, too late and the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump with 10 Republican Congress representatives voting with the Democrats to do so. It was the first time that a US President has been subject to a second impeachment. A vote to determine the verdict is expected in late January. If found guilty, this would prevent Trump from standing for President again.
The evidence against Donald Trump is strong. Apart from his apparent encouragement of sedition – especially via his Twitter column – probably the most serious charge against him was that after his evidence-less public assertions that the election had been stolen from him via fraudulent votes, Trump was himself apparently caught in a taped telephone conversation allegedly trying to convince an election official to “find votes” in order to change the Presidential result in the state of Georgia in his favour.
Despite this evidence, it remains finally balanced whether enough Senators will decide to “convict” Donald Trump as a two third’s majority is needed. While Trump’s political and personal reputation is now shot to pieces, nevertheless he still retains a significant loyal following within the Republican party, and some Republican Senators may be unwilling to risk losing this. Nevertheless, some important and well respected Republican senators such as former majority leader Mitch McConnell, are still expected to vote against Trump in disgust at the way things have gone.
So what will this mean for space?
Apart from having his election verified, the additional good news for Joe Biden was that his Democratic Party, which already had control of the House of Representatives, had also gained two more senators, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, via run-off elections in the US state of Georgia. Not only did these wins effectively put a confirmatory stamp Biden’s win, it gave the Democrats effective control of the US Senate via Vice President Kamala Harris’ casting vote. This will be important for getting legislation through.
The US nation as a whole remains “conservative” and resistant to left-wing policies involving the redistribution of wealth, positive discrimination for minorities, unrestricted immigration, or the “woke/cancel” culture’s attacks on free speech and US history. These, and a disdain for the self-satisfied political establishment, were partly the reasons why Donald Trump’s support held up so well in the US Presidential Election, despite public displeasure at Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, while this conservative sentiment (even within the Democratic Party) is likely stop some of the more radical elements of any left-of-centre agenda, Biden’s strong political hand, along with the national weaknesses exposed by the pandemic, could still allow him to enact significant (and much needed) changes to the US healthcare system. Taking a lead from the popular “Obamacare” health care reforms, there may be an effort to introduce a kind of UK-style National Health Service (NHS) or a state-run health insurance scheme.
One expected loser in this US government political change is NASA’s human lunar exploration project. While the Democrat side remains insistent that it still plans to reach the Moon, its lunar landing date “de-prioritisation” could mean that China’s “Taikonauts” beat US astronauts back to Moon.
It has to be noted that the Trump administration did gave a renewed sense of direction to NASA’s human exploration programme which was a relief after its vague predecessor evident during the previous Obama administration in which Joe Biden served as Vice President. And this sad state of affairs may yet return. Even so critics were already suggesting that NASA’s Artemis Programme would never able to achieve the Trump Administration’s 2024 human landing target. This was mainly due to problems with the technology readiness of high energy cryogenic propellant storage and transfer systems needed by a lunar lander (required because of the lunar orbit performance limitations of the Orion service module), and because of resistance in Congress to fully fund such a lander.
One Artemis-related programme which may suffer could be the planned Block 1B upgrade for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift launch vehicle. There is now an expectation that the planned Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) needed for this will be cancelled. The fact that new commercial heavy lift launch vehicles such as the SpaceX Starship/Superbooster combination is likely to soon be in operation is one reason. The other is that Republican Senator Richard Shelby, a strong supporter of SLS given that much of the work is done in his Alabama constituency, will now no longer be Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee – the main decider of NASA’s budget including those for individual programmes.
Nevertheless, some NASA programmes will still benefit from a change in the political wind. Many of the Earth observation programmes aimed at detecting and studying climate change are to be revived after being cancelled by the Trump Administration. As it is, one of the first things that Biden is expected to do is to re-sign USA to the Paris Accords on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, reversing Trump’s decision to leave it.
With respect to military space, Trump has the introduction of the US Space Force tied to his name, and this will remain. Likewise, the Trump Administration’s decision to move space traffic management from the US military to the US Department of Commerce rather than the FAA is likely to remain in place, at least until it is shown that it is failing.
Comment by David Todd: The Trump Presidency thus ends in disgrace. At the start of his Presidency we said that Donald Trump deserved to be given a chance. He does not deserve another one. Perhaps the most serious charge against Donald Trump (amongst many) is that he has tried to destroy the very democracy that originally elected him into power – a not uncommon occurrence as the democratically elected Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler (or even Russia’s President Vladimir Putin) might have observed. In this Donald Trump deserves no sympathy.
Like Chairman Mao’s ill-judged “Cultural Revolution” incitement to his young overzealous “Red Guards” to rebel, Donald Trump similarly found that he had lost control of the very insurgents that he had created. Perhaps Trump might have been wiser to have learned from that other dictator, Adolf Hitler, who disbanded his own brutal SA “brown shirt” mob once he realised that public distaste for their overtly violent actions was a threat to his own political ambitions. But then again, we are not here to give tips on how to win or keep power lest another “bad guy” is reading this.
We continue to have concerns about whether dithering delays will return to US space policy, or even whether President Joe Biden is really interested in it. Nevertheless, there are hopeful signs. President Biden specifically requested and was granted a loan of a piece of NASA moonrock (brought back by Apollo 17) which is now on display in the Oval Office at the White House.,
We thus give our support to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and wish them every success with their new administration. They were, after all, democratically elected in a free and fair election, whatever the infamously mendacious Donald Trump and his “big lie” might say.