President Donald Trump signs an executive order June 30 formally reestablishing the National Space Council, as astronauts, members of Congress, and industry executives look on. (credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
Friday’s signing of the executive order formally reestablishing the National Space Council provided yet another reminder of the relative importance of space in the grander political scheme. Space advocates could point to the presence of both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the White House ceremony, giving remarks to an audience of business leaders and members of Congress before the president formally signed the order. See, they could argue, space is important to the administration!
“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,” Trump said at the signing ceremony. “Today’s announcement sends a clear signal to the world that we are restoring America’s proud legacy of leadership in space.”
And yet, the event was oddly timed: late on a Friday afternoon before what, for many people, is a long weekend (at least for those taking Monday off prior to the July 4 holiday Tuesday). While the Trump Administration has given unusual publicity to other executive order signings—something past administrations traditionally have not done—this signing did not appear on the president’s daily schedule, and the White House only confirmed it at a press briefing half an hour before the signing. Neither that briefing, nor the signing itself, were broadcast live; the White House posted transcripts and video of the event several hours later.
But, at least, the executive order was finally signed. For months, word from the administration itself was that the executive order creating the council would be signed soon. “In very short order, the president will be taking action to re-launch the National Space Council,” Pence said at a March 21 Oval Office event to sign into law a NASA authorization bill. (That event, unlike last week’s executive order signing, was advertised in advance and broadcast live.)
Pence reiterated those comments at a ceremony June 7 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where he said the council would be reestablished “soon,” and again June 23 when he visited Air Force Space Command headquarters in Colorado, saying that the president would sign the order for the council “in just a few short weeks.”
Clearly there was some advance planning for the signing ceremony, enough to attract members of Congress who might have already left town for the July 4 recess by Friday afternoon as well as some executives who had to travel into Washington for the event. The result, though, made it look as though the White House wanted to dump the announcement at the end of a long week and move on.
The signing left more questions unanswered than just the timing of the signing of the order. One is why it took so long. Perhaps the months of delays in getting the order finalized and signed was because the administration wanted to make the new National Space Council different from its predecessor during the George H.W. Bush Administration, resulting in long debates about how to structure it.
Yet, the council established by the new executive order looks very much like the one that existed a quarter-century ago, created by a 1989 executive order. Compare, for example, the membership of the previous council with the new one:
(b) The Council shall be composed of the following members:
(1) The Vice President, who shall be Chairman of the Council;
(2) The Secretary of State;
(3) The Secretary of the Treasury;
(4) The Secretary of Defense;
(5) The Secretary of Commerce;
(6) The Secretary of Transportation;
(7) The Director of the Office of Management and Budget;
(8) The Chief of Staff to the President;
(9) The Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs;
(10) The Assistant to the President for Science and Technology;
(11) The Director of Central Intelligence; and
(12) The Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
(c) The Chairman shall, from time to time, invite the following to participate in meetings of the Council:
(1) The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and
(2) The heads of other executive departments and agencies and other senior officials in the Executive Office of the President.
(b) The Council shall be composed of the following members:
(i) The Vice President, who shall be Chair of the Council;
(ii) The Secretary of State;
(iii) The Secretary of Defense;
(iv) The Secretary of Commerce;
(v) The Secretary of Transportation;
(vi) The Secretary of Homeland Security;
(vii) The Director of National Intelligence;
(viii) The Director of the Office of Management and Budget;
(ix) The Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs;
(x) The Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration;
(xi) The Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy;
(xii) The Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism;
(xiii) The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and
(xiv) The heads of other executive departments and agencies (agencies) and other senior officials within the Executive Office of the President, as determined by the Chair.
Other than some minor reshuffling (in part to accommodate positions like the Department of Homeland Security that did not exist in 1989), the membership of the new council is similar to the old one. The purpose of the council is also similar:
(a) The Council shall advise and assist the President on national space policy and strategy, and perform such other duties as the President may from time to time prescribe.
(b) In addition, the Council is directed to:
(1) review United States Government space policy, including long-range goals, and develop a strategy for national space activities;
(2) develop recommendations for the President on space policy and space- related issues;
(3) monitor and coordinate implementation of the objectives of the President’s national space policy by executive departments and agencies; and
(4) foster close coordination, cooperation, and technology and information exchange among the civil, national security, and commercial space sectors, and facilitate resolution of differences concerning major space and space-related policy issues.
(a) The Council shall advise and assist the President regarding national space policy and strategy, and perform such other duties as the President may, from time to time, prescribe.
(b) In particular, the Council is directed to:
(i) review United States Government space policy, including long-range goals, and develop a strategy for national space activities;
(ii) develop recommendations for the President on space policy and space-related issues;
(iii) monitor and coordinate implementation of the objectives of the President’s national space policy and strategy;
(iv) foster close coordination, cooperation, and technology and information exchange among the civil, national security, and commercial space sectors;
(v) advise on participation in international space activities conducted by the United States Government; and
(vi) facilitate the resolution of differences concerning major space and space-related policy matters.
One difference between the old and new councils is how they create an outside advisory group. The 1989 order established a “Vice President’s Space Policy Advisory Board” that it said would be “an advisory committee of private citizens to advise the Vice President on the space policy of the United States.”
The new council creates something more focused: a “Users’ Advisory Group” that will be “composed of non-Federal representatives of industries and other persons involved in aeronautical and space activities.” That language, and statements by the president at the signing ceremony, suggest it will be more focused on business-related issues.
“And the Vice President, myself, and a few others are going to pick some private people to be on the board,” Trump said at the signing ceremony. “I will say that’s not easy because everybody wants to be on this board. People that you wouldn’t have believed loved what we’re doing so much they want to—some of the most successful people in the world want to be on this board.” He did not disclose any of the prospective candidates for the board, so it’s hard to judge whether there really is strong interest in being on the board or if that was just Trumpian hyperbole.
There were a number of space industry executives at the event, including the CEOs of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and United Launch Alliance, as well as an Orbital ATK executive and heads of several suppliers. Notably absent, though, were executives of emerging entrepreneurial space companies, like Blue Origin and SpaceX; there were different accounts about whether they were invited and unable or unwilling to attend, or not invited in the first place.
Another issue not addressed at the event is when the council will actually get to work. Many in the industry had expected the administration to announce, at the same time as the signing of the order establishing the council, who would serve as its executive secretary, responsible for day-to-day operations of the council. But neither the president nor the vice president said who the executive secretary would be, or when the council would meet.
Also missing was any indication of when the administration would nominate someone for NASA administrator. Acting administrator Robert Lightfoot was not present at the event—or, at least, not visible in any coverage of the event—but he did issue a statement later in the day saying he was “pleased” the president had reestablished the council, which “can help us achieve the many ambitious milestones we are striving for today.”
Lightfoot has been acting administrator for about five and a half months, and likely will have that job for some time to come. The administration has yet to nominate someone for the job, and at this point, with the August congressional recess looming, a nomination made even this week would be unlikely to get Senate confirmation before the break. (It’s worth noting that, at the signing ceremony, one long-running candidate for the job, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), was absent, but another potential candidate, former astronaut Sandy Magnus, was there in her role as executive director of the industry group AIAA.)
NASA, for the moment, seems to running fine even in the absence of a permanent administrator. Eventually, though, the administration will need to provide more leadership for the agency as it refines its human spaceflight plans, particularly in the wake of the long-anticipated decision to cancel the Asteroid Redirect Mission. While NASA has concepts for a cislunar habitat called the Deep Space Gateway, those ideas are still under development and haven’t been formally adopted.
Congress has also been taking a bigger role, pushing back against proposed cuts to NASA funding in the 2018 budget proposal. Those cuts were relatively modest compared to what other non-defense agencies were facing, but Congress has already started to take action. The day before the president signed the order creating the National Space Council, a House appropriations subcommittee approved, on a voice vote, a spending bill that would give NASA nearly $19.9 billon, almost $800 million more than requested.
“NASA has had far too much on its plate for too long, and too little funding,” subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) said at the markup session for the bill, which reverses cuts to exploration and education programs at the agency. “I’m determined to see that turned around.”
A few hours earlier, a hearing by the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the NASA budget proposal was similarly critical of the cuts. “This budget request attempts to navigate a challenging fiscal environment, but would disrupt ongoing missions and delay future exploration for years to come,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said.
Shelby, unsurprisingly, was concerned about decreased funding for the Space Launch System and Orion (which the House bill would fund back at 2017 levels.) “The current administration picks up where the previous administration left off, by projecting a lofty vision for space while providing a budget that keeps the vision from leaving Earth,” he said.
Other senators, of both parties, criticized plans to close NASA’s Office of Education and terminate some of its key programs. “I think we need to rethink this strategy, and I’m going to be working on that across the aisle and with the chair,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). The Senate has yet to draft its version of a spending bill.
It’s in that environment that the new National Space Council will—at some point—start its work on space policy.