WASHINGTON – One of the big questions surrounding President Donald Trump’s resurrection of the National Space Council is how effectively the space policy coordinating body will integrate emerging commercial capabilities into the various threads of American space activity.
Some have suggested that, with a space council chaired by Vice President Mike Pence cracking the whip, the full potential of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin can be brought to bear in support of the nation’s space goals. The implication is this hasn’t happened to date, which is puzzling since leveraging commercial capabilities to support the International Space Station was the centerpiece of former President Barack Obama’s space policy.
Obama was challenged in that effort not by the lack of a National Space Council, but by Capitol Hill, where key lawmakers viewed his outsourcing initiative as a threat to the pet program that they mandated, the decidedly uncommercial Space Launch System.
The super-heavy-lift SLS is exhibit A of the argument that getting the Executive Branch speaking with one voice on space policy, while sensible, won’t matter a great deal if Congress has a different agenda.
To recap, Obama’s human spaceflight policy was to outsource ISS crew and cargo transportation and invest in technologies with the potential to change the economics of deep space exploration. To make budgetary room, Obama canceled Constellation, a collection of hardware development programs begun under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
These programs, including a space shuttle-derived heavy-lift rocket similar to SLS, were intended to implement Bush’s plan to return astronauts to the moon in preparation for eventual journeys to Mars. In scrapping Constellation, Obama unilaterally broke the deal Bush made to win congressional support for retiring the NASA-fueled economic engine that was the shuttle: Fill the resulting void with something even bigger.
It is an interesting aside that Bush secured bipartisan congressional support for Constellation without the benefit of a National Space Council. This is something his father, former President George H.W. Bush, failed to do for his own moon-Mars initiative, despite having a National Space Council at his disposal.
The circumstances obviously were very different in those two cases, and they are different again today.
Whether or not Obama’s policy was best for NASA or the country is debatable. Either way, however, Congress made sure to get at least part of what it had been promised, even if it had to shortchange NASA’s outsourcing initiative to do so.
Thus did Trump inherit two disconnected space policies, one backed by his predecessor and one by a Congress whose priorities in space haven’t visibly changed much over the last few election cycles.
Another example of Congress taking the initiative on space policy is commercial remote sensing. Some may have forgotten that it took a pretty good shove from Capitol Hill, in the form of language in the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act, for the DoD to finally get serious about integrating commercial imagery into its planning and operations, a move that worked out nicely when the United States found itself at war in Afghanistan and Iraq – and desperately in need of imagery – following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
One could make the argument that Congress in the latter instance was filling a policy vacuum left by the absence of a National Space Council. The SLS, on the other hand, is a product not of policy vacuum but of a policy that Congress didn’t like.
It will be interesting to see how SLS fits into the rationalization of U.S. space launch, which according to Mark Albrecht, who served executive secretary of the National Space Council under Bush I, will be a key agenda item for the Pence-led council.
The DoD and NASA have long used the same rockets, but this is more by happenstance than design. The 1986 Challenger disaster upended the policy designating the shuttle as the primary U.S. means of space access, and NASA has since tailored its science satellites to fly on DoD-designed rockets.
This seems likely to remain the case when the DoD fields at least two new launcher families around the middle of next decade. It is noteworthy that the Air Force has every intention of leveraging commercial capabilities in its rocket development program, and this has long been the case.
Might the Pentagon, nudged along by the council, take advantage of the super heavy-lift capabilities of the SLS, which currently has no missions beyond two flights on the NASA planning books? That’s hard to imagine: The DoD’s current space behemoths have a high enough price tag, and also make inviting, high-value targets for U.S. adversaries.
This is not to say SLS offers no possibilities for synergy. Orbital ATK is developing a solid-fueled launcher leveraging SLS technology that it plans to enter into the Air Force’s Launch Services Agreements competition. But unless the National Space Council intervenes, there’s no guarantee that Orbital’s proposed system will be selected for Air Force funding.
Meanwhile, there is little reason to believe Congress would stand for a cross-agency space launch rationalization strategy that doesn’t preserve SLS.
There may well be tangible value in having a National Space Council; it only makes sense to coordinate policies affecting NASA, the DoD and other U.S. stakeholders in space. The fact that Trump is elevating the process to the vice-presidential level speaks to the importance this administration places on space. But those expecting the council to have a big-picture impact are forgetting the reality that achieving unity within the Executive Branch is only half the battle.