What is the National Space Council and what will it do for the future of space exploration? A look back through history provides some possible answers.
As President Donald Trump signed the order on June 30th re-activating the National Space Council, he suggested that the council would be “a central hub guiding space policy.” What are the prospects that, as Vice President Mike Pence recently claimed, “With the guidance of the National Space Council, the United States of America will usher in a new era of space leadership that will benefit every facet of our national life”? To gain a sense of the council’s possible impacts, it’s useful to see this act in a historical context.
It’s important first to understand that the National Space Council itself is just a committee of top-level administration officials. That committee, with Pence as its chair, will include the head of NASA, the Secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce, Transportation, and other cabinet departments, the Director of National Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, from the White House, the National Security Adviser and the Directors of Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The council will have a full-time staff of unspecified size, headed by an Executive Secretary. It is that individual, and his or her staff associates, who will be the key players in carrying out the ambitious tasks assigned to the council. The council will also have a part-time “Users Advisory Group,” composed of “representatives of industries and other persons involved in aeronautical and space activities.”
Given the senior status of its members, and the reality that they have many other things to do besides space policy, the space council is unlikely to meet frequently. When its members do gather, they will discuss and decide on proposals reflecting the work of council staff and resulting from interagency discussions of the diverse policy issues in the space sector.
Space Council Timeline
This is the third time a National Space Council has existed. The first council was created on congressional initiative as part of the 1958 Space Act and existed until President Richard Nixon abolished it in 1973. Fifteen years later, Congress recreated the council, and it was activated in 1989, in the first months of the George H.W. Bush administration. That council was de-activated in January 1993 as part of President Bill Clinton’s campaign pledge to reduce the size of the White House and Executive Office staff by 25%.
The space council has had some success stories along the way. In 1961 the council organized the consultations that led to President Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon, and in 1962 had a major role in shaping the framework for a commercial communications satellite industry. During the Nixon administration, the council had no visible impact on post-Apollo decisions, but in 1989, council staff working with NASA crafted the Space Exploration Initiative announced by President Bush. The council also took the lead in space engagement with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Those successes, however, were not been enough to establish a space council as an essential element of space policymaking. Eisenhower, whom the Space Act had made the council chair, did not hire a staff and never called a council meeting. President Kennedy revised the legislation to make the vice president the council chair, but after 1961 he often bypassed Vice President Johnson and the space council staff in making his space choices, preferring to depend on his science and national security advisers. After Johnson became president, he gave little attention to space issues and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, did not make space policy a major focus of attention. By the time Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, the council was essentially moribund.
The Nixon administration initially hoped to revitalize the space council, hiring Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders as Executive Secretary. Anders was able to carve out a useful lower-level role in post-Apollo decisions, but working through Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had no policy clout, as council chair was too much of a burden, and it was Anders among others who recommended in 1972 that the council be dissolved.
During the 1989-1993 Bush administration, as the council was re-activated, Vice President Dan Quayle took his role as chair seriously and assembled a politically astute, substantively qualified, and activist staff. The incoming Clinton administration’s decision to de-activate the space council was more a case of change for change’s sake than a negative judgment on the efficacy of the Council mechanism.
Prospects for the Future
What does this compressed historical review suggest are the prospects for the Trump/Pence National Space Council? First of all, there is a pressing need for coherence in managing the increasing complex U.S. space enterprise. With NASA hoping to resume human travel to distant destinations, with national security dependent on space capabilities, with the space environment increasingly congested, competitive, and contested, and with a multi-faceted U.S. private space sector emerging, coordination becomes imperative. The time is ripe for a well-crafted national space strategy that takes all of these factors into account. The opportunity for the National Space Council to develop that strategy and oversee its implementation is clear.
That will happen only if the new council has the active support of President Trump and becomes a major element of Vice President Pence’s portfolio. Assembling a highly qualified Space Council staff is of course essential, but that staff can be effective only if it is seen as having White House political support as it attempts to influence agency behavior.
In July 6th remarks at the Kennedy Space Center, Vice President Pence quoted President Trump as saying that the United States was “going to be leading” in space “like we’ve never led before.” Whether this is more than rhetorical boasting is yet to be seen, but if renewed space leadership does become reality, it is likely that the revived National Space Council will be key to that achievement.