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White House
While a new space council may sound beneficial, it’s unlikely that a President will accept advice from a committee forced upon him. (credit: J. Foust)

A new space council?

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The National Space Council

The Space Council had four main missions: establish broad goals and objectives for the U.S. space program, establish strategies to implement these goals and objectives through an integrated nation-wide set of activities, monitor the implementation of these strategies, and resolve specific program or policy issues arising from ambiguities or disagreements in implementing the strategies.

The Space Council consisted of 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. But in reality, the Space Council’s staff played a major role in the issues it took on and how they were approached.

Mark Albrecht was named as the executive secretary of the new National Space Council. Albrecht had little space experience but impressed many in the space community when he resolved a funding dispute over Landsat. By spring and summer 1989 the staff focused on establishing a new goal for human spaceflight. President Bush unveiled the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) in July, on the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, despite the fact that in early July NASA had estimated that such a plan would cost $400 billion. NASA was tasked with devising a more detailed SEI plan and returned its report by November. This was a three-decade program with a price tag of $400-500 billion. It was immediately criticized in Congress and the press as expensive and unrealistic.

Soon the Space Council staff began searching for cheaper alternatives to NASA’s plan. The staff’s relationship with the space agency and Congress deteriorated. The NASA leadership viewed the Space Council as an attempt to usurp control of the civilian space program, and members of Congress did not view the organization that they had sought as much better than the previous system they had criticized. After the space shuttle was grounded in summer 1990 because of hydrogen leaks and the flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope’s primary mirror was discovered, the Space Council created a special commission to review the future of the civilian space program.

The NASA leadership viewed the Space Council as an attempt to usurp control of the civilian space program, and members of Congress did not view the organization that they had sought as much better than the previous system they had criticized.

As the SEI program languished unfunded, the Space Council created another commission to explore alternative methods of achieving SEI goals more cheaply. But the Space Council staff also became convinced that leadership change at NASA was vital to making further progress on the exploration plan and eventually convinced President Bush to fire NASA Administrator Richard Truly. By 1992 the Space Council had a new executive secretary, Brian Dailey. It also created several review commissions on space launch, the space industrial base, and the future of American space policy in the post-Cold War world. These reports were produced by the end of 1992, after George H.W. Bush had lost the election.

When Bill Clinton became president in January 1993, he chose not to staff the National Space Council, although it still exists according to statute. Instead, civilian space policy decision-making reverted to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA, which now had a reform-minded administrator, Daniel Goldin.

Space policymaking at the White House

The history of both space councils, and the reasons for their elimination, provide ample evidence that such an organization at the White House level has only limited utility. High-level policy organizations only make sense if the decision makers want the advice in the first place or think that current methods and organizations are insufficient to provide such advice. As several observers have noted over the years, the reason that advocates want such an organization—to lobby for attention and funding for space activities inside the White House—is the same reason why presidential administrations oppose it. They do not want policy advocacy to be enshrined in a formal organization. President George W. Bush could have staffed a National Space Council in the first three and a half years of his presidency, but chose not to do so.

In addition, the previous experience of these organizations may serve as warnings to the current and future administrations. President George H.W. Bush was reportedly unhappy with the Space Council’s performance on the Space Exploration Initiative. He felt that they hastily advocated a policy that quickly became a political liability for him. A civilian space policy organization in the White House will naturally clash with NASA over the direction of the civilian space program.

It might make better sense to create a dedicated space exploration review committee at the NRC that can then provide advice to existing organizations.

The Space Exploration Steering Council would have only limited purview over the civilian space program. It would not have even the limited power that its predecessors had. Naturally, such an organization would seek to expand its purview to include other areas of civil and possibly even military space policy as the space exploration program required more funding and program changes.

Furthermore, much of the review and recommendation resources for the Vision for Space Exploration already exist in the National Research Council and its Applied Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board. It might make better sense to create a dedicated space exploration review committee at the NRC that can then provide advice to existing organizations.

Even those who opposed the previous National Space Council have conceded that there is some value to such a body. As one former staffer explained, there are numerous cross-agency issues that simmer as problems for years but are unable to gain a hearing and get resolved because there is no centralized body to deal with them. A space council could provide a useful forum for such issues.

But a president who has not devoted much time or attention or political capital to space, and who has discovered that lunar and Mars exploration plans are a political liability, may not wish to have an organization dedicated to this subject occupying space in the White House bureaucracy. It is unlikely that the Aldridge Commission’s recommendation to create a Space Exploration Steering Council will actually be followed.


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