President Trump revives the past to help shape the future of spaceflight
In a move that had been anticipated since late in his campaign, President Trump signed an Executive Order re-establishing the National Space Council on Friday, June 30, 2017. The Council, disbanded in 1993, will be chaired by Vice President Pence and staffed by members of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government, including the yet-to-be-named NASA Administrator, and will help guide national space policy and initiatives.
Originally created as the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC) as a part of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 during the Eisenhower administration, the Council was designed to give guidance to NASA during the early days of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
At its inception, the Council was chaired by the President and staffed by various Secretaries from the Executive Branch, along with the NASA Administrator, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and with an allowance of up to four additional members composed of representatives from private industry and the federal government.
Though the framework of the Council stayed relatively unchanged throughout its early years, President Kennedy directed that Vice President Johnson chair the committee in his stead. This arrangement of the Vice President chairing the Council has been commonplace throughout its history, even after renaming the organization to the National Space Council in President Bush’s administration in 1989.
After the Council was disbanded in 1993, its functions were assumed by the National Science and Technology Council.
Though President Obama had promised to re-establish the National Space Council as part of his 2008 campaign, his two terms passed without that pledge coming to fruition.
After President Trump made a similar promise during his 2016 campaign, many thought a similar fate had befallen the Council after five months had passed since his inauguration with little to indicate if, or when, the council would be reinstated. Indeed, the Administration has yet to name an administrator for the national space agency.
However, on relatively short notice, the President reinstated the Council and placed the Vice President at its helm.
“Today, we’re taking a crucial step to secure America’s future in space by reviving the National Space Council after it was—has been dormant almost 25 years if you can believe it,” the President was quoted as saying in a release by the White House.
“The Vice President will serve as the council’s chair,” stated Trump, following with a list of key members of the revived body. “Several representatives of my administration will join him including the Secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce, Transportation, and Homeland Security; the Chairman of the great—I’ll tell you, he’s doing a fantastic job, always working, always fighting, and winning – winning big against ISIS, that I can tell you, seeing what’s happening there—the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor, NASA, and the Director of National Intelligence.”
What does it mean?
Beyond the President and Vice President, there were Congressional representatives and Senators in attendance—mainly from states with a vested interest in a national spaceflight program—along with industry representatives and astronauts, including spaceflight pioneers Buzz Aldrin and Gene Kranz.
Notably absent from the signing, however, were leaders from the NewSpace industry. Though it was reported both SpaceX‘s Elon Musk and Blue Origin‘s Jeff Bezos were invited, neither were in attendance. In fact, one of the NewSpace industry’s leading advocates—the Commercial Spaceflight Federation—was not even invited and has been silent on the announcement.
In contrast, the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration—an alliance representing much of the traditional members of the United States’ spaceflight industry—was present for the signing.
“The re-institution of the National Space Council is another important step in solidifying our nation’s continued commitment to NASA’s deep space exploration program,” stated Dr. Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO of the Coalition, in an e-mail statement issued by the organization.
Robert Lightfoot, the acting NASA Administrator, was also quick to praise the signing of the Executive Order.
“I am pleased that President Trump has signed an executive order reestablishing the National Space Council. The council existed previously from 1989–1993, and a version of it also existed as the National Aeronautics and Space Council from 1958–1973. As such, the council has guided NASA from our earliest days and can help us achieve the many ambitious milestones we are striving for today,” noted Mr. Lightfoot in a release issued by the agency.
“The establishment of the council is 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,” concluded Lightfoot.
With traditional spaceflight partners and their supporters so readily represented, coupled with the lack of members from the growing NewSpace industry in attendance, one could draw the conclusion that the newcomers may not have much influence over the nation’s spaceflight direction.
However, with NASA not yet having an Administrator and not knowing the overall composition of the revived Council, only time will tell if America’s spaceflight policy will be guided by the “old guard” or shepherded by the nascent NewSpace leaders.
Video courtesy of The White House
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.