After months of foreshadowing, President Donald Trump today signed an executive order to revive the National Space Council, a move that’s likely to open the way for space policy changes that have been largely put on hold during the White House transition.
The order was signed at a White House ceremony on the eve of a long Fourth of July weekend. Among those in attendance: members of Congress, Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg and other aerospace executives, and astronauts including Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.
“Today’s announcement sends a clear signal to the world that we are restoring America’s proud legacy of leadership in space,” Trump said.
Vice President Mike Pence will serve as the council’s chairman, and the members will include top-level administration officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, the heads of the Commerce, Transportation and Homeland Security departments and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At least two of the spots on the roster, for NASA’s administrator and the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s director, are in limbo. Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot has been in charge of the space agency in a caretaker role, and the OSTP directorship is considered vacant.
The National Space Council was last active during the George H.W. Bush administration, with a similar membership and Vice President Dan Quayle as chair. It was disbanded in 1993 during the Clinton administration, and its functions were taken over by the National Science and Technology Council.
President Trump signs executive order reinstating the National Space Council -and yes, that's Buzz Aldrin to the right. pic.twitter.com/CiIo0uaFsU
— shannon A (@shogustus) June 30, 2017
Reviving the space policy council had been a long-expected move: During an Oval Office ceremony in March, Pence said that Trump would do so “in very short order.”
At that ceremony, Trump signed a bill into law that laid out a blueprint for sending astronauts to Mars by 2033. The council is likely to endorse that goal and fill in the details.
It could also recommend actions on initiatives ranging from the establishment of a Deep Space Gateway in the vicinity of the moon, to a re-examination of the Outer Space Treaty, a 50-year-old pact that puts limitations on sovereignty claims in space.
Today’s executive order also establishes a Users’ Advisory Group, composed of industry representatives and other experts on aeronautics and space activities from outside the federal government.
Historical precedent suggests the National Space Council’s impact on policy will be dependent on how its recommendations are received by Trump and Congress. When Quayle headed the council, its top issue was how to build a base on the moon and send humans to Mars for less than $400 billion.
Almost 30 years later, missions to the moon and Mars are still in the talking stage, despite a succession of committee reports.
Back in 2005, Pence chaired a Republican Party study committee that recommended canceling President George W. Bush’s initiative to send astronauts to the moon. That initiative ended up being canceled, but by President Barack Obama, who endorsed an initiative to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid instead.
The asteroid initiative was heavily modified in the course of Obama’s tenure, and faced heavy criticism from the GOP. Now that Trump is in the White House, NASA is closing down what’s now known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission.
That doesn’t mean the space effort is dead: Since becoming vice president, Pence has shown no inclination to go against Trump’s desire to see “American footprints on distant worlds.”
Trump’s advisers have voiced support for commercial initiatives, such as the plan to have SpaceX and Boeing ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. They’ve also signaled support for sending Americans beyond Earth orbit, to the vicinity of the moon and onward to Mars.
Phil Larson, who served as a space policy official in the Obama White House, told GeekWire in a texted message that he’s “not inherently negative on a space council.”
“Adding a layer of bureaucracy may not speed solutions, but the council’s usefulness largely depends on the policy it implements,” said Larson, who is now an assistant dean at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.
John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, agreed that the council’s impact depends on “where the path leads.”
“It could lead to a positive effect on the space effort, or it could, as in the past, end up not being a very important addition to U.S. space policy,” he told GeekWire. “I hope for the former.”
NASA Watch’s Keith Cowing reported that Scott Pace, the Space Policy Institute’s director, is widely expected to be named the National Space Council’s executive secretary. Pace declined to comment on the executive order when contacted by GeekWire today.