Biden to Keep White House National Space Council

Biden to Keep White House National Space Council

The Biden Administration has decided to retain the White House National Space Council. Its fate has been the subject of much speculation since Biden took office. The Council was created in a 1989 law, but presidents can choose whether or not to staff or fund it. The Biden Administration will be the third to do so.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council told that while details are still being developed, the membership will be broadly-based to address a full range of space policy issues.

At a time of unprecedented activity and opportunity generated by America’s activities in space, the National Space Council will be renewed to assist the President in generating national space policies, strategies, and synchronizing America’s space activities.

While we are still working details, we will tailor the Council to ensure we have representation that can address the priorities of the Administration—such as space-related science and technologies, space exploration, solutions to address climate change, ensuring economic and educational opportunities, building partnerships, cementing norms of behaviors in space, and addressing matters of national security efforts in space. This is not an all-inclusive list.  — NSC Spokesperson

Politico first reported the news.

The need to coordinate space policy across the government was recognized from the very beginning of the U.S. space program.  The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act that created NASA to conduct civil space activities while assigning DOD responsibility for national security space established a White House National Aeronautics and Space Council to coordinate between the two sectors. It was abolished by President Nixon in 1973. Development of space policy eventually fell to a “Senior Interagency Group” for Space (SIG-Space) under the National Security Council. In the late 1980s, dissatisfied with how long it took SIG-Space to respond to the 1986 Challenger tragedy and an overall lack of transparency in space policymaking, Congress created a White House National Space Council (without an aeronautics component) in Title V of the 1989 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 100-685, 51 USC 20111).

The law leaves most of the details, such as membership, up to the president because President Reagan vetoed a previous attempt in the 1987 NASA authorization act because it was too directive. The law does, however, require that it be chaired by the Vice President.

Reagan signed the bill into law at the end of his administration and his successor, George H.W. Bush, issued an Executive Order shortly after taking office formally establishing its membership and duties and it functioned throughout his administration.  Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama chose not to have a Space Council, however. During their terms, national space policy was coordinated through the National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy.

President Trump reestablished the Space Council in June 2017, with Vice President Mike Pence as chair and Scott Pace as Executive Secretary. The Space Council was very active, issuing reports and policies until the very end of the Trump Administration. It is widely credited with effectively coordinating among the many agencies involved in space these days and creating a “whole of government” approach to space policy.

The question has been whether it would stay or go under the new Biden Administration. The answer — it will stay.

Now everyone will be eager to learn who will serve as Executive Secretary and what agencies and White House officials will be members.  Under the Trump Administration, members were the Secretaries of the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce, Transportation, Energy, and Homeland Security; Administrator of NASA; Director of National Intelligence; Director of the Office of Management and Budget; Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Assistants to the President for National Security Affairs, Economic Policy, and Domestic Policy.

Scott Pace, who returned to his previous position as Director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute on December 31, told today he is pleased the Space Council will continue.

 “I commend the Biden-Harris Administration for deciding to continuing using the National Space Council process and its associated advisory group. This is an important signal of continuity to U.S. commercial and international partners and reflects the importance of space to enduring national interests.” — Scott Pace

The “advisory group” he references is the Users’ Advisory Group (UAG) created by Congress to provide outside advice to the Council in the FY1991 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 101-611).

Under the Trump Administration, the UAG was chaired by Adm. James Ellis and managed by NASA. An internal NASA memo obtained by NASAWatch indicates it is still operating today and is awaiting guidance as to next steps. The UAG updated its membership last May and surely will be updated again to reflect Biden’s preferences. Its 28 members include Trump political allies along with representatives of space businesses and one scientist. With Biden’s intense focus on the importance of science, it would surprising if more scientists were not appointed and perhaps more users of space products and data, rather than the companies that build, launch and operate space systems.

Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. speaking with NASA astronauts Kate Rubins  and Shannon Walker aboard the International Space Station as part of Women’s History Month, March 24, 2021.

Biden has repeatedly praised NASA’s Mars Perseverance mission, but has not personally weighed in on other aspects of the U.S. space program.  His press secretary said that he supports the Space Force and NASA’s Artemis program.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who by law will chair the Space Council, twice has held telecons with crew members aboard the International Space Station.  In late February, during Black History Month, she spoke with Victor Glover, the first African American astronaut on a long-duration ISS mission. Last week she spoke with Shannon Walker and Kate Rubins as part of Women’s History Month.  She seemed quite enthusiastic both times, but it is difficult to portend what she will do with the Space Council amidst her other responsibilities, like leading efforts to find a solution to the immigration problem. Biden assigned that task to her last week.

Biden’s decision to keep the Space Council is being well received today.  In an email this afternoon, Karina Drees, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, called it encouraging.

“The Commercial Spaceflight Federation and our members are encouraged by President Biden’s announcement to continue the National Space Council. A whole of government approach is critical to space policy implementation. The industry is poised to assist with the administration’s economic recovery and climate change goals.” — Karina Drees, CSF

Victoria Samson, Director of the Washington Office of the Secure World Foundation (SWF), also characterized it as “an encouraging development, as it will continue to aid in the interagency policy-making process.” More importantly, she added, “is the continuity that this demonstrates from the previous administration’s efforts.”  SWF issued a report in December urging the incoming administration to keep the Space Council. The report complimented many of the space policy decisions made during the past four years that “continue long-standing principles and goals that have persisted across administrations, Republican and Democrat, because they reflect core American values and national interests.”


This article has been updated.

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