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Astrobotic's Peregrine lander
By 2021, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander should be ready to go to the lunar surface. Space exploration and commercialization are listed as priorities for federally backed R&D. (Astrobotic Illustration)

Congress hasn’t yet approved a federal budget for the fiscal year that starts next month, but the White House is already setting an agenda for research and development in 2021.

Hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, nuclear energy research and missions to the moon are among the priorities listed in a memo sent out to federal agencies last week by White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier and acting budget director Russell Vought.

The memo uses a favorite term of Droegemeier’s — the Second Bold Era — to refer to a wave of progress in science and technology that he hopes will match the era following World War II.

Droegemeier and Vought say the current era is “characterized by unprecedented knowledge, access to data and computing resources, ubiquitous and instant communication, and technologies that allow us to peer into the inner workings of atomic particles as well as the vastness of the universe.”

“Unfortunately, this Second Bold Era also features new and extraordinary threats which must be confronted thoughtfully and effectively,” they said.

Perhaps for that reason, the memo lists American security as the first of five R&D budgetary priorities for federal agencies to consider as they prepare their budget requests for the 2021 fiscal year.

White House officials typically tweak agency proposals and send their full budget request to Congress for consideration in the February-March time frame. Here’s a snapshot of the priorities and what they might mean for tech industries:

American security

The memo calls out advanced military technologies including hypersonic weapons, resilient national security space systems and nuclear deterrent capabilities. Hypersonic weapons projects in China and Russia have frequently been mentioned as a challenge to U.S. air power — and several aerospace companies are working on similar projects. Lockheed Martin, for example, has been awarded more than $2.5 billion in hypersonic weapons contracts, including a newly announced $347 million contract from the Army. Boeing, meanwhile, is placing multimillion-dollar bets on hypersonic flight systems. And Spokane-based HyperSciences is in on hypersonic flight research as well.

Other priorities include developing infrastructure that’s resilient to natural disasters, space weather, cyber threats and electromagnetic pulse attacks; investing in next-generation semiconductors; and securing access to critical minerals (including rare earth elements for electronics and lithium for batteries).

American leadership in Industries of the Future

The memo touts artificial intelligence and quantum information science as high-priority frontiers for advanced computing. (They’re high-priority frontiers for Microsoft as well.) The White House also calls for lowering the barriers to the deployment of autonomous vehicles on land, air and sea. There are specific call-outs for electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft — also known as eVTOLs, air taxis or flying cars — plus civil supersonic aircraft. Quieter, affordable supersonic flight is a priority for Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other aerospace companies.

Advanced manufacturing technologies also come in for a mention — specifically, robotic systems that are enabled by the industrial Internet of Things, machine learning and AI, plus bio-based manufacturing techniques for medicines. The memo emphasizes public-private partnerships for technology development.

American energy and environmental leadership

Environment-friendly policies haven’t exactly been a strong suit for this White House, but the memo highlights several R&D priorities. On the energy front, nuclear R&D gets the most ink. That should come as good news to TerraPower, a nuclear research venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and headquartered in Bellevue, Wash.

The memo puts a priority on new approaches to mapping, exploring and characterizing the resources in the waters of the U.S. exclusive economic zone, as well as assessing changes in the world’s oceans and developing effective responses. There’s also a pitch for improving predictions relating to planetary phenomena ranging from individual weather systems to global climate change. (For what it’s worth, Droegemeier’s research background is in meteorology.)

American health and bioeconomic innovation

Research priorities include investments aimed at combating the nation’s opioid crisis, drug-resistant infections and HIV/AIDS. Also on the priority list: gene therapy, neuroscience and advances aimed at boosting the wellness of aging Americans and people with disabilities. Research projects aimed at preventing suicides and promoting wellness among military veterans get a special shout-out.

On the biotech front, the memo calls for prioritizing studies that rapidly establish safety and efficacy for products developed using gene editing.

American space exploration and commercialization

Space fans cheered the fact that the memo highlights the Trump administration’s drive to send astronauts to the moon by 2024, and use the moon as a “proving ground for a future human mission to Mars.” Research priorities include in-situ resource utilization on the moon and Mars, cryogenic fuel storage and management, in-space manufacturing and assembly, and space-related power and propulsion capabilities.

“Departments and agencies should also prioritize activities that ensure an industrial base for commercial activity in space, and that will broadly speed private-sector progress in meeting stated government goals and furthering the space economy,” the memo says.

All that meshes with the grand visions of billionaires such as Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk, as well as the more focused technological targets at smaller Seattle-area ventures such as Tethers Unlimited and Olis Robotics.

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