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The National Space Council gets to work

Scott Pace moderates a panel session on space policy at a July 14 event at George Washington University, a day after the White House announced his appointment at the executive secretary of the National Space Council. (credit: J. Foust)

Timing isn’t the only thing, but sometimes it can help a lot.

For weeks, the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University had been working with the Aerospace Corporation on an event in Washington titled, “Ensuring US Space Leadership.” The purpose of the event was to examine how a reconstituted National Space Council—a major element of the new administration’s space policy, formally enacted by executive order in late June—might deal with some of the major issues facing US space policy, and ensuring that leadership in space.

The evening before the July 14 event, though, the White House announced it planned to appoint Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute, as executive secretary of the council. That selection was timely for the event, if hardly surprising: Pace had long been the leading candidate for the position, which manages the council’s work on a day-to-day basis. Various individuals and organizations formally congratulated Pace on the position in the days that followed the announcement.

“I feel like this whole thing turned into a ‘give Scott advice’ panel,” joked Steve Isakowitz, president of the Aerospace Corporation, in remarks at the end of the half-day event. While a veteran space policy insider like Pace probably didn’t need that advice, the event did offer views of what the new National Space Council could, or could not, do.

Overcoming skepticism

During the event, former White House officials who had been involved in space policy in previous administrations said they supported the reestablishment of the National Space Council, including some who originally doubted the need for it.

“When the space council was first rumored to be resurrected last fall, my initial reaction was somewhat skeptical,” said Ben Roberts, who worked on space issues at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) during the Obama Administration. (Roberts, like the rest of the panelists who now work in industry or elsewhere in government, represented only themselves at the event.) “Over the last several months, I think I’ve become a lot more positive about the idea.”

In the Obama Administration and previous ones, OSTP handed many of the civil and commercial space policy issues, with the National Security Council (NSC) handling those involving defense-related ones. One of the things that swayed him about the space council, Richards said, is that OSTP remains severely understaffed, more than six months into the Trump Administration, making it unlikely the office could be effective on space policy issues in the absence of a space council.

Under the reconstituted space council, Pace will have a staff of several people to manage the council’s activities and key issues. That does not sound like a lot, but even in the best of times very few people at OSTP and NSC handed space issues. “It’s hard to appreciate until you’re there how thinly staffed” those offices are on space, said Damon Wells, who previously worked on space issues at OSTP.

One key early issue for the space council will be to figure out how it works with offices like OSTP, NSC, and the Office of Management and Budget. Those interactions were not laid out in the executive order setting up the council. “Getting that figured out immediately is going to be critically important because that’s where the new administration’s policies will stem from,” said Chirag Parikh, former director of space policy on the NSC.

The National Space Council will be formally chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, who has mentioned his interest in that role in several speeches, most recently at the Kennedy Space Center in early July. “I look forward to holding the first meeting of the National Space Council before the summer is out,” he said in that speech.

If Pence will be engaged in the space council’s activities, that will give it influence in its interactions with the various civil and military agencies that are involved in space and have representatives on the council. “It immediately gives you greater range in getting senior leadership involvement,” said Peter Marquez, another former director of space policy on the NSC.

“The role of the vice president, I believe, will be critical in all of this,” said Richard DalBello, who worked on space issues at OSTP in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. The key, he said, is ensuring that the council is “properly aligned with the objectives of the White House.”

What’s a space council to do?

So with the National Space Council formally established and staffed, and with a first meeting expected in the coming weeks, comes perhaps a more fundamental question: just what should the council do?

Much of the broader discussion about the council has revolved around civil space policy, such as what changes the administration should make to NASA’s human spaceflight programs. That, though, is shortsighted, Marquez argued.

“A space council is not a NASA council,” he said. “A space council is about national priorities, it’s about national needs, it’s about strategic imperatives. It’s not just about guiding NASA.”

Some at the event, taking that broad national view, argued for the council to examine those broad issues, and the broad threats, facing the US in space. “Take a look at all of the things that comprise how we’ve done space for 60 years,” said Gil Klinger, another former director of space policy on the NSC. “We are now obliged to ask ourselves what subset of those things that comprise how we’ve always done space remain relevant as we go forward.”

Part of that reexamination, he said, is based on the growing threats to US space capabilities, as the country has become increasingly reliant on them. He said he rejected the notion that space was once a “sanctuary” free from warfighting, but said that the threats today are greater than ever. “Any opponent of the United States is obliged to come after our space systems,” he said, through a physical or cyber attack.

Another reason for the reexamination, he said, is the growth in commercial space capabilities. “We now have a commercial space sector, both in the United States and globally, that is vibrant, is an economic driver, and continues to grow as we sit here,” he said. “It is going to flex and influence not only activity in space, but also activity in global commerce, activity in national security, intelligence, civil space activities, on a basis that we can’t yet imagine.”

Others also urged the council to focus on those big-picture issues rather than get caught in narrow topics in order to make the best use of its time. “It makes a lot of sense to me that the president would reconstitute the space council, but it is not an end in and of itself,” said Michael Donley, former secretary of the Air Force.

“There are a lot of things that you could address, but you want to be relevant,” he added. “You want to know when and why a decision is needed at the national level.”

Robert Kehler, a retired Air Force general who last post was head of US Strategic Command, argued that national “focus” on space has been cyclical in past decades. He thinks that the space council can be a success if it just restores focus on space policy to address key issues.

“The number one thing we need to make sure we have done is refocus our national-level thinking on space,” he said. “If a renewed space council does nothing else, then I think it was worth standing it up.”

Panelists, during the event, touched on a wide range of issues for potential consideration by the council, from space traffic management to space cooperation with China to the proposal to establish a “Space Corps” within the Air Force. There’s no evidence yet, though, about how the space council will take on those issues, if they even rise to the council’s attention at all.

“Until we establish some kind of a national-level focus, my opinion of this is that all of the rest of the problems are far harder, and maybe impossible, to solve,” Kehler said. “I think there is a real challenge here for the national-level enterprise.”

But if you’re wondering when the next major space policy decision to come from the administration might be, Isakowitz jokingly offered a tip, based on the coincidence of this event with the announcement of Pace as the council’s executive secretary. “Our next event is September 21st.”


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