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LBJ Space Council
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (seated, center) presides over a meeting of the National Aeronautics and Space Council. Is re-establishing such a council the best way to coordinate present-day space policy? (credit: Maxwell Hunter Foundation)

Is creating a National Space Council the best choice?

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This essay addresses a single, rather straightforward question: Is there a best organizational structure or approach at the presidential level, if the United States wants to maximize the contributions of its civilian, military, intelligence, and commercial space capabilities to the pursuit of its national goals and purposes? There is much discussion during the current transition period about re-activating the National Space Council to achieve this objective, but that is only one of several possible approaches to coordinating US space activities and developing a strategic approach to their utilization, and, as suggested at the conclusion of this discussion, may not be the best option. An alternative, giving the National Security Council the capabilities needed to carry out the coordinating and strategy-developing role, may well be a better course of action.

An alternative to the National Space Council, giving the National Security Council the capabilities needed to carry out the coordinating and strategy-developing role, may well be a better course of action.

One discriminator between options is the role of the Vice President. If a Space Council is headed by an otherwise strong Vice President intent on using it as one of his major areas of policy influence, it may be able to overcome the institutional resistance of executive agencies, particularly those in the national security community, to White House direction. But if the Council leadership is exercised by a Vice President without a strong political base or commitment to space leadership, then lodging the space strategy responsibility in the body that the President uses to steer other national security functions is likely to produce better results.

There certainly needs to be some means of coordinating the behavior of various separate space actors to be consistent with national purposes. There are too many separate interests and centrifugal forces at work in the US space sector to expect an automatic coherence in pursuit of national objectives of the space actions of diverse actors. The capabilities that form the basis of US space power are controlled, not by the President, but by executive branch agencies such as the Department of Defense and its constituent elements, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The Department of State relates space capabilities to US foreign policy objectives and oversees the implementation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which influence space technology exports. The Departments of Commerce and Transportation and the Federal Communications Commission also play important regulatory roles vis-à-vis the US commercial space sector. That sector is developing, with private capital, capabilities that are becoming an essential part of US space power. Each of these space actors, and sub-elements within them (for example, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate), has its own set of relationships with supportive nongovernmental constituencies. Bringing these separate organizations together in pursuit of common goals is a challenging task.

Given this diffuse space system, if there is to be a national strategy for space, it must come from the center of government: “The bureaucracy is no more equipped to manufacture grand designs for Government programs than carpenters, electricians, and plumbers are to be architects. But if an architect attempted to build a house, the results might well be disastrous.”1 The White House must act as the “architect” for a US space strategy and must persuade the various centers of power within and outside the federal government that it is in their mutual interest to work together in turning that strategy into action.

Alternative organization approaches: A historical perspective

A look back at the history of space policy development and coordination at the White House level can provide some useful insights regarding the current situation. There has been some form of White House structure for managing US space efforts since the Eisenhower Administration, which was faced with the issue of how to organize the US space effort in response to the October 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik. A brief review of the various ways in which different presidents organized their management of US space matters can provide a rather comprehensive catalogue of possible organizational alternatives or elements that might be employed by the administration of incoming President Donald Trump. In particular, it is important to understand why, although there has been a National Space Council in existence for 19 of the past 58 years, it has twice been replaced by other approaches to formulating national space policy at the White House level. What differences between today’s situation and the past make such a Council likely to succeed the third time around?

Eisenhower Administration

In the aftermath of the first two Soviet satellite launches, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James Killian, as his advisor on science and technology and gave Killian the responsibility for suggesting an organizational approach for space. In December 1957, Killian recognized that the Department of Defense was “committed to a space program and is in the process of setting one up,” but that there was a “broad area of non-military basic research relating to space.” He noted that there were several alternatives for the conduct of this nonmilitary space research, including having it managed through the Department of Defense or through an existing or new civilian agency. Whatever approach the President chose, suggested Killian, “there should be some mechanism… which gives coherence to the broad program.”2 From the very beginnings of the US space program, the need for a central coordinating mechanism was thus recognized.

Although he had agreed to establish the council at Johnson’s urging, Eisenhower did not fully implement the intent of Congress.

Eisenhower at first did not see the need for a new, separate space agency; his initial inclination was to keep all US space activities within the Department of Defense. But he soon became persuaded that space science and exploration should be under civilian control. That decision spread US government space capabilities between two agencies, the Department of Defense and a new National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In addition, by assigning control over the initial US reconnaissance satellite program, CORONA, to a separate mechanism outside of both the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, Eisenhower in February 1958 also laid the foundation for a separate intelligence space organization. As he sent his proposals for a civilian space agency to Congress in April 1958, Eisenhower did not include a mechanism for coordinating the national space effort.

However, as Congress debated the administration’s proposal, both the House of Representatives and the Senate came to the view that some such mechanism was necessary. The House suggested an Aeronautics and Space Advisory Committee that would be comprised of individuals outside the government and would meet only four times a year. This position was also favored by Killian. The Senate, under Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, favored a high-level policy board along the lines of the National Security Council to exercise centralized policymaking authority for a coordinated national space program and to ensure that questions of broad national strategy were considered in formulating that program. The Senate position prevailed, and the 1958 Space Act established a nineĀ­person National Aeronautics and Space Council in the Executive Office of the President. The council would be chaired by the President and would include as members the Secretaries of State and Defense, the administrator of NASA, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, one other senior government official, and three private citizens.3

Although he had agreed to establish the council at Johnson’s urging, Eisenhower did not fully implement the intent of Congress. Rather, he added a few people to the NSC staff to deal with space matters and handled space policy issues through the National Security Council process, adding the NASA administrator to those in attendance when space issues were to be discussed by the NSC and declaring such an occasion a meeting of the Space Council. By 1960, Eisenhower had concluded that the idea that there could be a comprehensive, integrated US space program was incorrect, and thus called for a revision of the 1958 Space Act that would eliminate “those provisions which reflect the concept of a single program embracing military as well as non-military space activities,” since “in actual practice, a single civil-military program does not exist and in fact is unattainable.” Given this conclusion, Eisenhower judged that he did not need a separate council for space matters and proposed that it be abolished.

Both NASA and the House of Representatives supported Eisenhower’s proposal, but it was blocked in the Senate by Lyndon Johnson, who observed that there would be a presidential election in a few months and that “the next President could well have different views as to organization and function of the military and civilian space programs.” By the time he made this comment on August 31, 1960, Johnson knew that John F. Kennedy and not he would be the Democratic nominee for the presidency, but he still believed in the strategic importance of space and the need to deal with space issues at the national level.4

In January 1960, a comprehensive 21-page statement of national space policy was developed and issued inside the government (but not made public) as a National Aeronautics and Space Council document. The statement noted that “although the full potentialities and significance remain largely to be explored, it is already clear that there are important scientific, civil, military, and political implications for the national security.” This Eisenhower space policy was to be the last presidentially-approved statement on national space policy for 18 years.

Kennedy Administration

As he prepared to enter the White House after his 1960 election, John F. Kennedy was advised by presidential scholar Richard Neustadt that there was indeed a need for policy coordination between the civilian and military space programs and that a reorganized National Aeronautics and Space Council, with fewer members (none from outside the government) and with the Vice President rather than the President as its chair, might be a useful means of achieving such coordination. Kennedy accepted this advice and submitted the legislation needed to amend the 1958 Space Act to create a National Aeronautics and Space Council along these lines.

Webb was never happy to find the Space Council and its staff between himself and the President. Attempts by the Space Council staff to develop a comprehensive statement of national space policy were not successful.

An opportunity to use the Council mechanism arose early in the new administration. In the wake of the April 12, 1961, launch of the first human, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, into space, President Kennedy asked his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, “as Chairman of the Space Council to be in charge of making an overall survey of where we stand in space.” At this point, the Space Council had only one staff person, a former congressional staff member named Edward Welsh. Together, he and Vice President Johnson organized hurried consultations involving NASA, the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, NASA official Wernher von Braun, Air Force General Bernard Schriever, several businessmen, and senior members of the Senate.

But it was NASA and Department of Defense staff (without Welsh’s involvement) who prepared a lengthy memorandum titled “Recommendations for Our National Space Program: Changes, Policies, and Goals.” This memorandum was signed by NASA Administrator James Webb and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and sent to the Vice President on May 8. Johnson endorsed it and forwarded it to the President on the same day. The memorandum called for an across-theĀ­board acceleration of the US space effort and increased integration of the civilian and military space programs. It recommended setting a manned lunar landing as a national goal. It was this memorandum, which came out of the Space Council review but was not prepared by its staff, which formed the basis for Kennedy’s decision to send Americans to the Moon.

The Space Council acquired a small staff of its own in 1961–1962 and was active on other space issues during the rest of the Kennedy Administration, in particular on how best to organize the government for the development and operation of communications satellites. The Space Council principals met a number of times as a body, but more for information-sharing sessions and program coordination than to discuss policy decisions. However, the Council never again was the primary source of space policy advice to President Kennedy, who relied for counsel on space matters on NASA Administrator Webb and on those with whom he had a personal relationship, such as his science advisor, Jerome Weisner. In particular, Webb was never happy to find the Space Council and its staff between himself and the President. Attempts by the Space Council staff to develop a comprehensive statement of national space policy were not successful, and there is no indication that the staff was able to exert any influence on defense and national security space issues.

Johnson Administration

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who became chairman of the Space Council in 1965, had shown little interest in space matters as a member of the Senate, and there is no indication that the Council was particularly active between 1964 and 1968. Edward Welsh stayed on as executive secretary, but the Johnson White House depended more on Webb, its science advisory apparatus, and budget director Charles Schultze for space policy advice. Humphrey did try to use the Space Council mechanism to stimulate discussions on how better to use the space program as an instrument of foreign policy, but with little apparent impact. By the end of the Johnson Administration, the Space Council was basically a moribund structure. Welsh stayed on as executive secretary until Johnson left office in January 1969.

Nixon Administration

As he assumed office in January 1969, President Richard M. Nixon was advised that, with the first landing on the Moon in the near future, there was a need for a comprehensive review of the national space program. Nixon asked Vice President Spiro Agnew to head up a Space Task Group to carry out such a review. The review did not use the mechanism of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, which in early 1969 was without a dedicated staff, to carry out this review. Staff support for the Space Task Group came instead from the White House Office of Science and Technology.

As he began his second term in January 1973, Richard Nixon announced that he was abolishing the National Aeronautics and Space Council.

In June 1969, toward the end of the Space Task Group review, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders was appointed executive secretary of the Space Council, with a mandate to revitalize the organization. Over the next three and a half years, Anders and his small staff were active participants in the White House discussions on the content of the post-Apollo space program, on a new approach to international cooperation in space, and on whether to approve development of the space shuttle. They had little apparent involvement with the military or national security space programs. But the Space Council never met at the principals’ level, and Anders and its other staff members were only one of several sources of space policy advice within the Executive Office. The Science Advisor and his Office of Science and Technology and what in 1970 became the Office of Management and Budget had more weight in most White House space policy debates.

As he began his second term in January 1973, Richard Nixon announced that he was abolishing the National Aeronautics and Space Council (and the Office of Science and Technology). His message to Congress announcing this action said that:

…basic policy issues in the United States space effort have been resolved, and the necessary interagency relationships have been established. I have therefore concluded, with the Vice President’s concurrence, that the Council can be discontinued. Needed policy coordination can now be achieved through the resources of the executive departments and agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, augmented by some of the former Council staff.5

Ford Administration

During most of the brief administration of President Gerald R. Ford, there was no Executive Office unit with specific responsibilities for space policy. General science and technology advice was provided by the director of the National Science Foundation, who was also designated as the President’s science advisor. In 1976, Congress passed a bill reestablishing a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to provide advice to the President on the full range of science and technology policy issues, including space. Defining space as a science and technology policy issue, rather than as an issue of broad national policy, had the effect of limiting the influence of OSTP on non-research and development space matters, particularly those involving national security activities.

Carter Administration

The National Security Council, using the SIG (Space) mechanism, held the White House lead for space policy for the remainder of the Reagan administration.

Space policy remained the responsibility of OSTP during the four years that Jimmy Carter was President. Given the broad purview of OSTP responsibilities and its small staff, only one or two staff members worked on space issues. With OSTP leadership, for the first time since the end of the Eisenhower administration two broad statements of national space policy were developed; those statements were issued as National Security Council documents. The senior OSTP staff member with space responsibilities was “dual-hatted” as a National Security Council staff member, establishing a pattern of close cooperation on space matters between the two organizations that has persisted for most of the time since. This arrangement also allowed this staff person access to information regarding highly classified military and intelligence programs. There was also a senior military officer on the National Security Council staff with space issues as his primary responsibility.

Reagan Administration

For the first 18 months of Ronald Reagan's presidency, OSTP remained the lead White House organization for space policy; its director, who came out of the national security community, and his staff managed the development of the first Reagan statement on national space policy, which was issued on July 4, 1982. That policy changed the approach to space policy coordination to give the lead role to the National Security Council and its staff, stating:

Normal interagency coordinating mechanisms will be employed to the maximum extent possible to implement the policies enunciated in this directive. To provide a forum to all Federal agencies for their policy views, to review and advise on proposed changes to national space policy, and to provide for orderly and rapid referral of space policy issues to the President for decision as necessary, a Senior Interagency Group (SIG) on Space shall be established. The SIG (Space) will be chaired by the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and will include the Deputy or Under Secretary of State, Deputy or Under Secretary of Defense, Deputy or Under Secretary of Commerce, Director of Central Intelligence, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.6

The National Security Council, using the SIG (Space) mechanism, held the White House lead for space policy for the remainder of the Reagan administration. It managed the development of many classified space policy directives with associated public “fact sheets.” There was usually only one NSC staff member, an Air Force officer, supporting SIG (Space), but the senior members of the NSC staff were also rather involved in space policy issues. The science adviser’s office also stayed involved, but in a decidedly secondary role. Other interagency bodies, such as the Cabinet Council on Commerce and Trade in the first Reagan term and the Economic Policy Council in the second term, got involved in space matters, in particular those with commercial implications.

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