Trump Reestablishes National Space Council

Trump Reestablishes National Space Council

President Trump signed an Executive Order today reestablishing the White House National Space Council.  Created by law in 1988 and operational under the George H.W. Bush Administration, the Council has not been funded or staffed since the end of his administration in January 1993.  It was chaired during his Administration by Vice President Dan Quayle,  Now it will be chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence and Trump spoke at the White House during a signing ceremony for the Executive Order (EO) that sets out the Space Council’s membership and purpose.  It also creates a Users’ Advisory Group to obtain input from the private sector and other non-government interests.

The EO establishes the membership as follows (in the order listed in the document):

  • Vice President, who shall be Chairman
  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of Defense
  • Secretary of Commerce
  • Secretary of Transportation
  • Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget
  • Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Director of National Intelligence
  • Secretary of Homeland Security
  • Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
  • Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • heads of other executive departments and agencies and other senior officials within the Executive Office of the President as determined by the Chairman

The Space Council’s purpose is to advise and assist the President on national space policy and strategy including to review U.S. government space policy and develop a strategy for national space activities; develop recommendations for the president on space policy and space-related issues; and monitor and coordinate implementation of the President’s national space policy.

President Trump signs Executive Order reestablishing National Space Council, White House, June 30, 2017.  Photo credit:  tweet from Mark Knoller, CBS News White House Corresponent.  (Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin is on Trump’s left.)

Pence stated in March during the signing ceremony for the NASA Transition Authorization Act and again in June when NASA announced the new class of astronauts that the Space Council would be reestablished and he would lead it. In that sense. the announcement today was no surprise, but the White House kept the news to itself.  Rumors began circulating earlier this week that the announcement would take place today at 3:00 pm ET, but even this morning it was not listed on the President’s schedule.  The White House press office asserted that it had no knowledge of the event as late as 1:30 pm, although Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders mentioned it at the end of the daily White House press briefing that began at 2:00 pm ET (which was off-camera).

No live coverage was provided by the White House, NASA, or television networks, although a video was later posted on the White House YouTube channel.

President Trump enters the room (far right) during signing ceremony for National Space Council Executive Order, June 30, 2017.  Screengrab from White House YouTube videoVice President Mike Pence is in center, behind podium.

Most members of the House and Senate left Washington last night for the July 4 holiday, but based on the video, six Republican House members stayed in town for the event today:  Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which funds NASA;  Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, which authorizes NASA activities and sets policy; Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of the House SS&T Space Subcommittee; Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), member of the House CJS subcommittee; and two other members of House SS&T – Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL).

Joining them were NASA astronaut Benjamin Alvin Drew and former astronaut David Wolf (in blue flight suits to Pence’s right), former Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (to Pence’s left, with white beard), and former space shuttle astronaut Sandy Magnus (first woman to Aldrin’s left).  Magnus currently is Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Others who were present include United Launch Alliance President Tory Bruno; Boeing CEO Dennis Mulinberg; Lockheed Martin CEO Marilyn Hewson; Orbital ATK Director of Business Development, Launch Vehicle Division, John Steinmeyer; AMRO Fabricating Corporation CEO Mike Riley and President John Hammond; Futuramic Tool & Engineering Company Vice President John Couch; Cain Tubular Products Owner Mike Cain; Coalition for Deep Space Exploration (CDSE) President and CEO Mary Lynne Dittmar; former NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz; and former Congressman and lobbyist Bob Walker.  (Notable by their absence were representatives of entrepreneurial “New Space” companies.)

The only member of the Council other than Pence who was there was Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot was not present.  NASA said he was out of town and unable to attend.  In a press release issued after the event, Lightfoot called the reestablishment of the Council “another demonstration of the Trump Administration’s deep interest in our work, and a testament to the importance of space exploration to our economy, our nation, and the planet as a whole.”

Pence said he was “honored and frankly enthusiastic” about taking on this role, adding that President Trump was recommitting the nation to “do what Americans have always done — to lead, to push the boundaries of human knowledge, to blaze new trails into the unknown and astonish the world with the courage and leadership of the United States.”

Trump himself said the announcement “sends a clear signal to the world that we are restoring America’s proud legacy of leadership in space,” and “space exploration is not only essential to our character as a nation, but also our economy and our great nation’s security.”

Pence will travel to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on July 6 to tour facilities and speak to the center’s workforce.  NASA TV will cover the event beginning at 12:00 pm ET. Pence’s speech is scheduled for 12:50 pm ET.

The value of having a National Space Council in the White House has been debated at length over the decades.  Congress created a National Aeronautics and Space Council in the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act that established NASA for civil space activities and assigned military space activities to DOD.  That Council’s task was to coordinate between civil and national security space.  President Richard Nixon abolished the Council in 1973.  A new National Space Council, without the aeronautics component, was created by Congress in the FY1989 NASA Authorization Act and implemented through an Executive Order signed by President George H.W. Bush on April 20, 1989.  Today’s Executive Order supersedes the one from the Bush Administration.

The Bush-era Space Council had a broader task since commercial space activities had emerged by then, adding a third sector.  That period of time (April 1989-January 1993) was marked by sharp disagreements between the Council, chaired by Vice President Quayle with Mark Albrecht serving as Executive Director for most of those years, and NASA Administrator Dick Truly.  Albrecht wrote a memoir about his perception of the relationship between the Space Council and NASA and why President Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative to return astronauts to the Moon and someday go to Mars never materialized, placing most of the blame on Truly. That is only one view of what transpired during those years, but the relevant point is that the clash between the Space Council and NASA created friction that hindered more than it helped.

Many veterans of that era have mixed views about whether a new Space Council will be effective.

Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a long-time participant in space policy development and implementation, wrote in a March 14, 2017 op-ed for The Hill that the “White House does not, and never has, needed a space council to supervise NASA, but it does need a way to combine the separate strands of national security space programs, diplomatic engagement, commercial competition and civil space cooperation with a unity of national purpose and effort.”

One key to the success or failure of the Space Council will be the relationships that evolve among its Executive Director and the leaders of the various government agencies, including NASA, and private sector companies involved in space. Pence did not announce who will serve as Executive Director of the Council and no announcement has yet been made as to who will be nominated to serve as NASA Administrator.

Another will be the extent to which the President listens to the Council’s advice and backs it up during almost inevitable battles with other parts of the Executive Office of the President, such as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

For now, however, optimism is the watchword.

House SS&T Chairman Smith said in a statement to that the “reinstatement of the Space Council demonstrates the Trump administration’s commitment to unlocking the great economic and scientific potential” of outer space.  He added that he looks forward to working with Pence and the Council “as Congress moves forward on important legislation for civil, commercial and national security space priorities.”

Eric Stallmer, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), told that CSF “looks forward to working with the Space Council to showcase the innovation and value the commercial space marketplace brings to the space community.”

In a press release, CDSE’s Dittmar called reestablishment of the Council “another important step in solidifying our nation’s continued commitment to NASA’s deep space exploration program.”  That press release identified many of the industry representatives who were at the event and are CDSE members, including suppliers like AMRO Fabricating Corp., Futuramic Tool & Engineering Co., and Cain Tubular Products.

AIAA also issued a press release wherein Magnus said the Institute views the Space Council as “an opportunity to create an integrated strategic approach to U.S. space endeavors” and “stands ready to support any and all efforts to facilitate discussions between our community and executive branch officials.”

Correction:  The word “commercial” was inadvertently omitted from Eric Stallmer’s quote and has been corrected.
Update:  Comments from NASA Acting Administrator Lightfoot from a June 30, 2017 NASA press release were added.


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