Space Council Discusses STEM, Human Spaceflight and Commercial Space Regulation

Space Council Discusses STEM, Human Spaceflight and Commercial Space Regulation

Vice President Kamala Harris chaired a second meeting of the White House National Space Council yesterday. As with the first meeting, STEM education was one of the three main topics. The other two were NASA’s human spaceflight program and creating regulations for novel commercial space activities. No major decisions were announced, but a White House framework for STEM education and space workforce development was released and several tasks were assigned to Council members.

Held at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home of the NASA astronaut corps and mission control for the International Space Station, Harris first spoke with the three U.S. astronauts aboard the ISS:  Kjell Lindgren, Jessica Watkins, and Bob Hines. Harris has a strong interest in climate change and most of the conversation revolved around how seeing the Earth from space changes one’s perspective. They also discussed the ISS’s role as a microgravity research laboratory.

The conversation ended abruptly when the ISS passed out of range. The Vice President had arrived at mission control many minutes late according to the schedule published by her office.

The Space Council meeting later in the day reviewed actions taken since the meeting in December. STEM education, climate change, including NASA’s role in earth science research, and establishing international norms of behavior in space were the topics then.

Yesterday, Harris again praised the Artemis Accords as an example of norms of behavior that have been signed by 21 nations so far. Assistant Secretary of State Monica Medina announced that the United States, France and Brazil will host a meeting of those signatories in conjunction with the International Astronautical Congress in Paris later this month. They will “discuss how to operationalize the Accords in civil and commercial contexts” and how to get more countries to sign.

Harris also said the United States will introduce a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly later this month calling on other countries to join the U.S. commitment not to conduct destructive, direct-ascent antisatellite tests. She made that pledge on behalf of the United States in April following Russia’s November 2021 ASAT test that created thousands of pieces of debris. So far Canada and New Zealand are the only countries that have agreed.

Yesterday, STEM education was again on the agenda and the subject of the first panel. The theme was building the aerospace workforce of the future and featured Pablo Banda, a high school teacher from Milby High School in Houston, Harold Martin, chancellor of North Carolina A&T State University, and Healther Bulk, CEO of Special Aerospace Services. The White House released a fact sheet on “commitments to inspire, prepare and employ the space workforce” and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released an Interagency Roadmap to Support Space-Related STEM Education and Workforce.

Harris issue three STEM-related tasks for members of the Council:

  • the Department of Education is to create a plan within 90 days to stand up a new STEM office in the Department;
  • OSTP is to inventory and align all space-related investments and partnerships between the federal government and colleges and universities within 120 days; and
  • NASA, DOD and the Department of Commerce are to recommend a plan within 180 days to ensure the space program is included in federal programs like Manufacturing USA.

The second panel, on human spaceflight, focused on the ISS and what comes next. Harris praised the ISS, especially the biomedical research taking place there, and reiterated the U.S. commitment to extend operations to 2030 while acknowledging it will not last forever. Dr. Arun Sharma from Cedars-Sinai told the Council about the stem cell research he’s conducting on ISS, while Karina Drees, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, endorsed NASA’s partnership with the private sector to build future commercial space stations. Drees stressed that it is “critical to avoid a gap” between the ISS and follow-on commercial space stations, or Commercial LEO Destinations (CLDs) as NASA calls them, in order to “counter growing Chinese influence and capabilities in the space arena.”

Harris vowed that the Administration is committed to ensuring that NASA can continue to conduct scientific research in low Earth orbit.

And as we will discuss more today, our administration remains committed to making sure that NASA maintains the capacity to conduct cutting-edge research in space…

She also enthused about the Artemis lunar program. She was at Kennedy Space Center on August 29 for the attempted launch of the Artemis I test flight around the Moon, although the launch was scrubbed. She remains undeterred and spoke excitedly about landing the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon. (The launch scrubbed again on September 3.  NASA is targeting September 23 or 27 for the next attempt.)

Harris assigned three tasks to Council members regarding human spaceflight:

  • NASA is to develop a plan for a new microgravity National Lab as part of the transition from the ISS to commercial space stations;
  • NASA is to finalize a plan for an initial lunar surface architecture within 150 days including consideration for commercial and international partnerships; and
  • the Department of Transportation (DOT) is to identify interim steps within the next year to use existing authorities to ensure the safety of humans in spaceflight.

DOT regulates commercial human spaceflight through the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. By law, companies flying private passengers to space are required only to obtain the customer’s “informed consent” and the FAA is prohibited from promulgating additional regulations for a certain period of time. That period has been extended several times and currently expires next year.

The third panel focused on the issue of creating a clear, consistent and flexible regulatory regime for novel commercial space activities as summarized in a separate article. Harris’s task to the Council in that regard is for all the Council members to provide her with a proposal for the authorization and supervision of novel commercial space activities within 180 days.

At the end, Harris announced that Gen. Lester Lyles (Ret.) is the new chair of the Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group, succeeding Adm. Jim Ellis (Ret.). Other members of the UAG will be announced later.

The fast-paced, two-hour meeting left no time for unscripted conversations. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Gen. James Dickinson, Commander of U.S Space Command, and Alondra Nelson, Acting Director of OSTP were there, but most Council members sent Deputies or other alternates.

Participants in the National Space Council meeting at Johnson Space Center, TX, September 9, 2022. Vice President Harris is in the center. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is to her left (on the right in this screengrab). The camera view does not show all participants.

The Vice President’s office did not provide a list of participants, but from the introductions she made the following were among the Council members or their representatives in attendance (roughly in speaking order):

  • Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator
  • Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary, Department of the Interior
  • Jewel Bronaugh, Deputy Secretary, Department of Agriculture
  • Don Graves, Deputy Secretary, Department of Commerce
  • Monica Medina, Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, Department of State
  • Nani Coloretti, Deputy Director, Office of Management and Budget
  • Alondra Nelson, Acting Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Cindy Martin, Deputy Secretary, Department of Education
  • Heidi Shyu, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Department of Defense
  • Chike Aguh, Chief Innovation Officer, Department of Labor
  • Polly Trottenberg, Deputy Secretary, Department of Transportation
  • Stacey Dixon, Deputy Director, Office of the Director of National Intelligence
  • Gen. James Dickinson, Commander, U.S. Space Command
  • John Tien, Deputy Secretary, Department of Homeland Security

Jessica Rosenworcel, Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, was also a participant.

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