Council Meeting Signals High Level Administration Interest in Space

Council Meeting Signals High Level Administration Interest in Space

The first meeting of the White House National Space Council today may not have changed the course of the country’s future in space, but participation by the Vice President and high ranking Cabinet and agency officials itself sends a signal that the Trump Administration is very interested in the space program.  What will come of it remains to be seen, but today was an important first step.

Vice President Pence’s opening remarks reiterated what he has said in other venues — America will lead in space and we will return astronauts to the Moon and go on to Mars and beyond.

Veteran members of the space community have heard that before.  Many times, in fact, since the end of the Apollo program 45 years ago.  President George H.W Bush proclaimed it in 1989, President George W. Bush asserted it in 2004, and President Barack Obama promised Mars if not the Moon in 2010. Little has come of it.  Former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden frequently said we are closer to landing humans on Mars than ever before, which is a truism, but even with the ongoing development of the Space Launch System and Orion by NASA and the aspirations of entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, realistically it still seems far away.

Vice President Mike Pence speaking at the first meeting of the National Space Council, October 5, 2017, Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center. Screengrab from NASA TV.

Human spaceflight is only one component of the space program, of course, and the purpose of the Space Council is to develop an integrated U.S. policy for the civil, commercial and national security space sectors.  The membership of the Council is broadly representative of those sectors.  While the meeting today was just the beginning of determining what Trump Administration space policy will be, perhaps the most notable aspect was that it took place at all, in public, with most of the principals in attendance.

The members of the Council who were present at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA were:

  • Mike Pence, Vice President and Chairman of the National Space Council
  • Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State
  • Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce
  • Elaine Chao, Secretary of Transportation
  • Mick Mulvaney, Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget
  • H.R. McMaster, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence
  • Elaine Duke, Secretary of Homeland Security (Acting)
  • Tom Bossert, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
  • Robert Lightfoot, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Acting)

The Secretary of Defense (James Mattis) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr, USMC) were the only two who sent their deputies:  Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva (USAF).  The Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is also a member of the Council, but the position is currently vacant.  Michael Kratsios, Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States, is the de facto acting OSTP Director and he participated in today’s meeting.

Simply getting such a high level group of people together in one place at one time is no mean feat, especially outside the Washington beltway, even if only by a few miles.  Most of them asked questions during the approximately 2.5 hour meeting and seemed well briefed and interested.

Three panels of expert witnesses interacted with the Council members and offered a range of ideas for the Council to consider.  The “civil” panel included Marillyn Hewson from Lockheed Martin, Dennis Muilenburg from Boeing and David Thompson from Orbital ATK.  The “commercial” panel was composed of Gwynne Shotwell from SpaceX, Bob Smith from Blue Origin and Fatih Ozmen from Sierra Nevada Corporation.  The “national security” panel included Mike Griffin, former NASA Administrator and former deputy director for technology in the Strategic Defense Initiative Office; Adm. James Ellis (Ret.), former Commander of U.S. Strategic Command; and Col. Pamela Melroy (Ret.), former space shuttle astronaut and former DARPA deputy director of the tactical technology office.  (We will post a more detailed summary of the meeting including the key points of their remarks soon.  In the meantime, check our live tweets of the meeting @SpcPlcyOnline)

Pence gave assignments to the Council members, with a 45-day deadline, as follows:

  • NASA is to develop a plan for an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with international and commercial partners to enable human expansion across the solar system, returning humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.
  • The Departments of Commerce and Transportation are to lead a comprehensive regulatory review for commercial space with the objective of removing barriers, streamlining regulations, and reducing bureaucratic hurdles.
  • The National Security Council will continue its work on developing a “space strategic framework” that will ensure U.S. leadership, preeminence and freedom of action in space; promote America first, but not America alone; define vital U.S. interests in space; and address four primary objectives in pursuit of those vital interests.  They are: strengthen safety, stability and sustainability of space activities (resilience may be added); deter and when necessary defeat adversaries’ space and counterspace threats; partner with the U.S. commercial sector to ensure American companies remain leading providers of goods and services on the international space market; and maintain and extend human and robotic exploration beyond Earth and transform knowledge of ourselves, our planet, our solar system, and the universe.

Pence indicated the Council will meet again in 45 days to review all those efforts, hence the deadline.

That’s a challenging goal, but conveys a sense of urgency to make decisions.  That could be tied to budget schedules since the administration is currently crafting the FY2019 budget request.  By law, budget requests are supposed to be submitted to Congress on the first Monday of February so the FY2019 request should be sent to Congress on February 5, 2018.  If the Space Council meets again in 45 days, there would still be time to influence the FY2019 request.

Finding the money has been the obstacle to past attempts to accomplish bold space program goals.  First, the President has to decide that a space program has a high enough priority to request the needed money and then Congress has to appropriate it.  For the past several years Congress has been appropriating more than the President requested, but if deficit reduction remains an overarching goal, it is not clear how much longer that will go on.

The question on most people’s minds today is whether this time will be any different than the past, where bold goals were more easily espoused than implemented.  Today’s meeting is a first step.  Only time will tell if this President and Vice President are willing to put space at the top of their budget priority list and can convince Congress to agree.

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