President Trump is bringing back the National Space Council, a group formed 60 years ago aimed at coordinating the nation's activities beyond Earth. But with NASA still without an administrator, it's not yet clear what this means for Trump's vision for space exploration.
An executive order signed Friday appoints Vice President Pence chairman of the resurrected advisory body, which will also include the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, transportation and homeland security; the NASA administrator; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and several other government officials. The order also called for the establishment of a “Users' Advisory Group” including representatives from states and private industry.
“We're going to lead again,” Trump said. “It's been a long time, over 25 years, and we're opening up and we're going to lead again like we never led before. … The next great American frontier is space.”
Besides having not named a NASA administrator, the president has not yet appointed a director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, who also is supposed to sit on the council.
— Vice President Pence (@VP) June 30, 2017
The National Space Council was created during President Dwight Eisenhower's administration, with the aim of making sure there was someone close to the president to coordinate national policy on space. It would eventually include the NASA administrator, some Cabinet secretaries for relevant agencies (Defense, Energy, Transportation) and a handful of other officials and heads of private industry.
After Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked the council to draft a report on where the United States stood in comparison. The council ultimately suggested setting a moon landing as a national goal, and soon after, Kennedy told a Texas crowd: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade.”
The council's influence waned over the next few decades, and after a brief resurgence during the George H.W. Bush administration, it was ultimately disbanded.
The component agencies, especially NASA, tended to bristle at the council's oversight, according to a history compiled by George Washington University space policy expert John Logsdon. Critics saw the council as adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to an already convoluted endeavor.
But proponents of a revived National Space Council say it could help coordinate the nation's agenda in an increasingly complex environment. Recently, the commercial space sector has grown bigger and more ambitious. And many critics have been frustrated by NASA's seeming lack of direction in the past few decades: First we were going to the moon, then to Mars, now back to the moon, maybe?
“Given this diffuse space system, if there is to be a national strategy for space, it must come from the center of government,” Logsdon wrote this year.
Trump has generally spoken about space travel in sweeping terms — “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream,” he said in a February address to Congress. Earlier this year, the president asked NASA to conduct a feasibility study to see if it could put astronauts on the first test flight of its new rocket and crew capsule; the agency ultimately rejected the idea. Now the plan seems to be for a “Deep Space Gateway” — a crew-tended space port in lunar orbit, kind of like the International Space Station but farther away. The president has also indicated he'd like to send people to Mars by his second term, though it's not clear how serious these plans are.
Mark Albrecht, who served as the executive secretary for the National Space Council under George H.W. Bush, applauded the decision to revive it. “The agenda for a White House-coordinating-body on space policy will be substantial and urgent,” he told The Post in an email.
The White House signing ceremony was held without much fanfare — it wasn't even on the president's daily schedule. Four former astronauts and several members of Congress were on hand, and the president gave the pen he used to Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon. Representatives from Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other private companies were also in attendance.
But some of the biggest names in the “new” commercial space industry, Elon Musk of SpaceX and Jeffrey P. Bezos of Blue Origin, were absent from the event. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
In a tweet, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation said it was “encouraged” by the executive order but hoped “the innovation and value of commercial space is adequately represented on [the] council.”
Also missing were top officials from NASA. Though astronaut Benjamin Alvin Drew was in attendance, no one from headquarters was present for the signing.
After the event, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot issued a statement calling the establishment of the council “another demonstration of the Trump administration’s deep interest in our work.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated what cabinet secretaries were initially involved in the National Space Council. The secretaries of Transportation and Energy were added to the council after those agencies were created in 1966 and 1977, respectively.