First Harris-Led National Space Council Meeting Set for Tomorrow

First Harris-Led National Space Council Meeting Set for Tomorrow

The first meeting of the White House National Space Council under the Biden-Harris Administration will take place in Washington, D.C. tomorrow afternoon. The time and location were only made public this evening and an agenda is yet to be released, but whatever transpires will set the tone for Vice President Kamala Harris’s leadership of the Council at a critical time for the U.S. space program. The 1:30 pm EST meeting at the U.S. Institute for Peace will be livestreamed on the White House website.

Vice President Kamala Harris at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, November 5, 2021, where she announced her first National Space Council meeting will take place on December 1, 2021. Screengrab.

By law, the Vice President of the United States chairs the National Space Council, which was created in the 1989 NASA Authorization Act. The law leaves most of the details, such as membership, to the President. Last year President Trump updated his Executive Order on Space Council membership, adding the Secretary of Energy and two White House officials. That Executive Order remains in force so the members at this moment are the following.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken
  • Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III
  • Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo
  • Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg
  • Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm
  • Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas
  • Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines
  • Director of the Office of Management and Budget (Acting) Shalanda Young
  • Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Jake Sullivan
  • Assistant to the President for Economic Policy Brian Deese
  • Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy Susan Rice
  • Administrator of NASA Bill Nelson
  • Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy Eric Lander
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley

As of press time, Harris’s office has not indicated who among them will be at the meeting tomorrow or what topics will be discussed.

A bipartisan group of Senators from the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee wrote to Harris yesterday urging her to put space debris at the top of her list, especually in the wake of the Russian antisatellite test two weeks ago. According to NASA, it added at least 1,700 pieces of trackable debris in low Earth orbit. The seven-member crew of the International Space Station — two Russians, four Americans, and one European — had to shelter in place for about one day when debris from the test came close to the ISS. Early this morning a spacewalk that was just given the green light yesterday was abruptly postponed to Thursday because NASA needed more time to evaluate whether a piece of space debris posed a risk. NASA did not say whether the debris came from the Russian test or not. Low Earth orbit is littered with debris from many countries, including the United States.

The Senators pointed out that efforts at the Department of Commerce begun under the Trump Administration to build an Open Access Data Repository of government and commercial data on space objects have slowed since the change in Administrations. They wrote a separate letter to Raimondo urging her to appoint a new Director of NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC) to galvanize the program. It will be interesting to see if she attends the meeting tomorrow and offers her views on what the Department should be doing in Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Traffic Management (STM) and whether she intends to advocate for elevating OSC to a higher level in the Department.

The Biden-Harris Administration so far seems fairly well aligned with the civil, commercial and national security space policies of the Trump Administration, but it is not clear how much priority space has overall.

The space community was delighted early on when President Biden put a Moon rock in the Oval Office, touted U.S.-European cooperation on Mars exploration as an example of how the allies could “secure our futures together,” and cheered the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars. Perhaps inevitably, that high level of attention soon dropped off, but the challenges of maintaining U.S. leadership in space and protecting U.S. space assets from adversaries with antisatellite and other counterspace weapons remain.

Many are looking to what Harris says, and perhaps more importantly does, tomorrow as an indication of whether this Administration comprehends the importance of U.S. space activities and the need to keep pressing forward. While it is only one issue, the apparent lack of progress on SSA/STM is emblematic of the concern that Harris is taking her foot off the pedal.

Mike Pence’s Space Council meetings were criticized as being too showy, but he did use them to hold Council members to account in accomplishing assignments like modernizing regulations or transforming NASA. President Trump famously stopped by one of the meetings to very publicly tell the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he wanted to create a Space Force, a congressional proposal that DOD — and until that point the Trump White House — was resisting.

That was then and this is now. Harris is in charge and the question on everyone’s mind is how forcefully she will engage in space policy amid her many other responsibilities. It has been slow going so far, but the Administration is only 10 months old. Tomorrow may be the starting gun.

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