The Space Review

 
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Whoever is residing in the White House next year could be well-served to reestablish a national space council to provide space policy advice. (credit: J. Foust)

Senator Obama and re-establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Council

On Saturday, August 2nd, Senator Barack Obama spoke in Titusville, Florida (see “The (not so) big switch”, The Space Review, this issue). In his remarks, Senator Obama called for re-establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC). This proposal has the potential to have a major positive impact on space policy. It offers the space community a forum where disparate groups can come together and work out policy differences. It provides us with the means to finally really change course and fundamentally alter our relationship with space. This forum will have as big an impact on space development that the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 had on the development of the Internet. In short, it will go a long way towards establishing a true space constituency. Rather than a call for a massive new space program, or a massive increase in the NASA budget, this policy is substantially more important, and, in my opinion, it should erase any doubts about Senator Obama and the importance of space and space development to our nation. In short, I would argue that it has made him the real pro-space candidate.

The need for a national space forum

Already, there are areas where competing interests are causing a breakdown within space policy: everyone knows about the infighting that is happening with regards to NASA and the space science community. In addition, there is also infighting regarding the current plan, Project Constellation.

Right now there is a public debate about the current Ares 1/5 plan vs. a proposed Direct plan, and because of various issues, there is concern that Direct will not get a fair and independent hearing (see “Saving America’s space program”, The Space Review, this issue). If re-implemented, the NASC could provide a place for a thorough and independent review.

Rather than a call for a massive new space program, or a massive increase in the NASA budget, this policy is substantially more important, and, in my opinion, it should erase any doubts about Senator Obama and the importance of space and space development to our nation.

Another area facing problems is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). ITAR regulates the export and import of defense-related articles and services. There is a lot within the space industry that falls within this category: SpaceShipTwo has had ITAR issues, the launching of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 both had ITAR problems, and so on. The NASC would be the perfect place to resolve ITAR reform, because it would bring together all of the important players (such as the Defense Department, the State Department, National Security Advisor, NASA administrator, and so on).

Recently, a coalition of space activists and space groups was established to pursue Cheap and reliable Access To Space (CATS). This coalition and the pursuit of CATS alone raise numerous policy questions. For example, there has been much talk about creating an NACA devoted to CATS, or an investment company, like Red Planet Capital. A revitalized NASC is the perfect organization to create and potentially manage these issues.

Another area where the NASC can play a positive role is related to Space Solar Power (SSP). There has always been interest in SSP, and with the report that came out last year, there has been a renewed interest in SSP. However, as Taylor Dinerman noted earlier this year, while NASA will undoubtedly have some role to play in it, NASA should not be the only player, and may very well be a minor player in such a project (see “NASA and space solar power”, The Space Review, May 19, 2008). A fully staffed and active National Aeronautics and Space Council would have everyone needed to create and manage such a project.

But can we expect the revitalized NASC to actually succeed? The best way to determine whether the NASC can succeed is to look at the history of presidential space councils.

Can it succeed?

The first version of a presidential space council was established by then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. He felt that the United States, and specifically the president, needed to maintain a strong emphasis on both military and civilian space programs. While President Eisenhower was not originally in favor of it, he eventually agreed, and in August of 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC) was established.

Eisenhower did not make much use of the NASC during the remainder of his term. ╩Prior to taking office, then President-elect Kennedy appointed VP-elect Lyndon Johnson to be chairman of the board for the NASC. ╩While NASC played a role in the development of the COMSAT corporation, it never really became an integral part of the US space organizational infrastructure.╩ This is due to a number of things: lack of major interest from the presidents, an effective NASA administrator, external pressures, and no competing interests, just to name a few. ╩President Nixon was never a strong supporter of the NASC, and proposed its elimination.╩ After his 1972 re-election, the NASC was abolished. ╩Civilian space policy was then addressed through the Office of Science and Technology Policy, while military space programs were managed by the Department of Defense.

During Ronald Reagan’s tenure as president, space policy discussions and deliberations were managed by the Senior Interagency Group for Space. Not surprisingly, it had a military slant to it. After the Challenger accident, there were calls to reinstate some form of executive space council. While President Reagan vetoed the idea originally, then Vice President George H. W. Bush supported it. And so, after the 1988 election, during President Reagan’s final days in office, he signed into law a bill that created the National Space Council.

President Bush made extensive use of the National Space Council. While the NSC did help and played a role in developing policy, because of the proposed price tag of the Space Exploration Initiative ($400–500 billion), NASA leadership and the NSC descended into a turf war which ultimately resulted in Richard Truly being fired as NASA administrator.

For the NASC to work, it is clear that the president must be willing to utilize the council, and also the council must be more than merely advisory.

When President Clinton took office in 1993, he chose not to staff the NSC. Decision making reverted to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, NASA, and the DOD, where it remains to this day. While the statute that created the NSC is still in place and there was an attempt to revive it (or a version of it) after the Columbia accident, the positions within the NSC remain unfilled. (For a more detailed history, see “A new space council?”, The Space Review, June 21, 2004)

For the NASC to work, it is clear that the president must be willing to utilize the council, and also the council must be more than merely advisory—it must have authority to carry out its mandate.

The mission and the membership

Critical to the success of the NASC is its goals, and membership. As was stated, the NASC was disbanded during the Nixon administration, but it is very likely that the re-established NASC will embody a great deal of what the NSC covered. For this reason, it is worth revisiting both the stated goals of the NSC, and its membership. The four stated goals of the NSC were:

  1. Establish broad goals and objectives for the US space programs
  2. Establish strategies to implement these goals and objectives through an integrated nation-wide set of activities
  3. Monitor the implementation of these strategies
  4. Resolve specific program or policy issues arising from ambiguities or disagreements in implementing the strategies

The NSC membership included the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, Commerce, Transportation, Energy, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Chief of Staff to the President, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, the Director of Central Intelligence, and the NASA Administrator. This diverse group not only had different perspectives to bring, but also the authority to enact decisions it made.

Why Obama, and why he got there first

However, despite the broad membership, much still depends on the President. And here is where Senator Obama presents a unique opportunity: between his history and his methods when it comes to making important decisions, Senator Obama is well positioned to take advantage of the NASC. In particular, Senator Obama’s history as a community organizer lends itself to consensus building. And, with regard to his decision making process, he is not driven by ideological purity, but rather by evidence. Noam Scheiber talked about this in an article called “The Audacity of Data”.

It is for these reasons that I suspect revitalizing the NASC appealed to Senator Obama greatly. Given the current disjointedness that is our current space policy (owing to years of neglect), a forum where the aerospace community could come together and develop good policy and good policy recommendations would most definitely be a welcome change. And, along those lines, this is why I believe he will make extensive use of the NASC.

I feel it’s no accident that it was Senator Obama, and not Senator McCain, who proposed recreating the NASC. He truly understands the importance of community in general, and this is a lesson that we in the space community need to learn.

And beyond the policy developments, in my opinion, it also made great sense that is helping Senator Obama on the campaign trail. While space policy is not a huge issue, there are more than a few people who have been concerned about his earlier comments about space policy and, in particular, human spaceflight policy. Indeed, when the Houston Chronicle endorsed Senator Obama, one of their biggest concerns was over his proposals with regard to manned spaceflight. I suspect that they now may be feeling less concerned about his comments with regard to manned spaceflight.

Final thoughts

Frankly, I would submit that a revitalized NASC would be good policy, no matter which candidate came out with it. Should Senator McCain win the presidential election, I would argue that he should recreate the NASC. The forum that it provides us with will be invaluable to help the space community to come together and allow us to truly work to develop space. Perhaps the most important impact it will have is that it will be the start of the creation of a much larger space constituency. That fact has always hurt the space community. Outside of a few select congressional districts traditionally related to the space industry, most people don’t consider space an important issue. This explains the lack of coherency in space policy.

However, I feel it’s no accident that it was Senator Obama, and not Senator McCain, who proposed recreating the NASC. He truly understands the importance of community in general, and this is a lesson that we in the space community need to learn. Once we truly understand this, the importance of space will be demonstrated to everyone.


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