Is creating a National Space Council the best choice?
George H. W. Bush Administration
The Democratic leadership in Congress was not happy with the 1982 shift of space policy jurisdiction to the NSC. This shift meant that space decisions would be made in the secretive style characteristic of NSC operations and that Congress could not force the NSC director to testify at congressional hearings, since he was not a Senate-approved Presidential nominee, as was with the director of OSTP. There was a Congressional attempt in 1987 to reestablish a separate Space Council through legislation; in that attempt, the Senate had to approve the nomination of an individual to be Space Council executive secretary and thus could compel that individual to testify. President Reagan vetoed this legislation. In 1988, a measure creating a National Space Council was incorporated in the NASA fiscal year 1989 authorization bill. In its revised form, the Space Council executive secretary was not a Presidential nominee requiring Senate confirmation. That bill was signed by President Reagan, but its provisions did not come into effect until Reagan’s successor took office. Those provisions remain in effect today; while the Space Council was de-activated in 1993, its legislative basis was not revoked.
The new National Space Council came into being on February 1, 1989; it was chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle. The law establishing the council was silent on Council membership but did provide for up to six council staff members in addition to the executive secretary. Eventually, Vice President Quayle designated the leaders of Cabinet departments and other executive agencies involved in space activities as Space Council members.
For the next four years, the Space Council staff, which included the six positions provided in the establishing legislation plus several more individuals detailed from executive agencies, played an extremely activist role in attempting to revitalize what it judged to be a stagnant civilian space program. The staff was the primary mover behind what became known as the Space Exploration Initiative, announced by President Bush on July 20, 1989. This initiative called for a return to the Moon and then human journeys to Mars. In December 1989, the council assembled a blue-ribbon commission for a two-day meeting to comment on what was perceived as NASA’s disappointing response to that initiative, and then convened a “synthesis group” to examine alternative approaches to human space exploration. In 1990, the council staff initiated another high-level examination of the civilian space program, chaired by Lockheed Martin executive Norm Augustine; this review took place over several months and went into great depth.
In 1991, Council staff convinced Vice President Quayle and President Bush that NASA administrator Richard Truly should be replaced, and then played a key role in selecting his successor, Daniel Goldin. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Council staff took the lead in outreach to the new Russian government with respect to both commercial and government-to-government space cooperation. In mid-1992, the Vice President finally established the Vice President’s Space Policy Advisory Board that had been called for in the legislation establishing the Council. The board was composed of 12 nongovernmental members with long experience in the various sectors of US space activity, and it issued three reports on space issues during the second half of 1992.
However, the Space Council’s influence was limited almost exclusively to the civilian and commercial space sectors. There is no evidence that the council staff played an activist role with respect to national security space programs In addition, its interventions into the day-by-day management of NASA’s efforts were strongly resented by senior NASA officials. The Vice President convened occasional meetings of senior executive branch officials involved in space matters, and there were several statements of national space policy issued under the council’s auspices, but the National Space Council was primarily a staff intensive activity rather than a forum for top-level policy discussions. Given the Council’s central role in space policy, neither OSTP nor NSC played a major role with respect to space policy during the first Bush administration.
One of Bill Clinton’s campaign promises was to reduce the size of the institutional Presidency by 25 per cent. As part of this effort, the National Space Council and the Vice President’s Space Policy Advisory Board were deactivated (rather than abolished) soon after Clinton took office in January 1993. Jurisdiction over civil space policy matters was assigned to OSTP as part of the portfolio of its associate director for technology, with national security space being assigned to the associate OSTP director for national security and international affairs. For most of the eight years of the Clinton administration, there were two or three OSTP staff members with specific space policy responsibilities, and for the most part they limited their activities to the civilian space sector. The administration also established a National Science and Technology Council as the inside-the-government mechanism for policy review and coordination. That council had several standing committees in various areas of science and technology, but none for space. President Clinton also established the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology as a source of external advice; space policy was not among the topics that came before that body during the Clinton administration.
Between 1993 and 2001, there were a number of space policy statements generated through an interagency process coordinated by OSTP, with a new statement of national space policy issued in September 1996. Vice President Al Gore and his staff also paid particular attention to space issues and had a major role in the decision to invite Russia to join the space station program and in several other space initiatives. Staff cooperation between the Vice President’s office, OSTP, and NSC continued. The National Security Council lead for space matters was designated its director for space, who reported to the NSC senior director for defense policy and arms control and who worked closely, but in a secondary role, with the OSTP staff on space issues.
George W. Bush Administration
At the outset of his administration, President George W. Bush created underneath the National Security Council a number of policy coordinating committees (PCCs) that were intended to be the main day-to-day fora for interagency coordination of national security policy. The PCCs were to provide policy analysis for consideration by more senior elements of the NSC system, such as the Deputies Committee, the Principals Committee, and the NSC itself, and to ensure timely responses to decisions made by the President. Space policy was not originally a focus of one of the PCCs, but a Space Policy Coordinating Committee was soon established and, in June 2002, was assigned the responsibility for carrying out a comprehensive review of national space policy under NSC auspices. This represented a shift in lead space policy role from OSTP to the NSC.
Members of the Space Policy Coordinating Committee were mid-level political appointees (for example, assistant secretaries) of the executive agencies dealing with space matters. The committee chair was the NSC director for space, who was a civilian rather than a military officer, as had been the case during the Reagan Administration. Also involved were the Assistant Director for Space and Aeronautics of the OSTP and a senior OSTP analyst. These three individuals were thus the only people (except for Office of Management and Budget staff) with responsibility for space policy in the Executive Office structure. Of the three, the NSC director for space was the most influential, based both on his personality and on his long experience in the national security community. However, in the Bush administration the various executive agencies had greater power than the NSC, and interagency disagreements slowed the progress of the space policy review ordered in June 2002. There were multiple drafts of a national space policy statement before it was sent to the President for approval in August 2006.
In August 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama released a statement of his positions on space that promised to re-invigorate the National Space Council and to have it report directly to him rather than through the Vice President. The statement said that:
This campaign promise was not met once the Obama Administration took office. Opposition to a centralized space structure came from the various government space organizations, particularly those dealing with national security space, and there was a general resistance in the new administration to enlarging the White House staff. Rather, the administration’s approach to formulating space policy was very similar to that of the Bush Administration, with the influential NSC director for space, again a civilian from the national security community, working with his less influential colleagues in OSTP to manage an interagency process to develop space policies. The Space Policy Coordinating Committee was renamed Space Interagency Policy Committee, but still remained the primary forum for interagency discussions. The interagency process was able to agree on a statement of national space policy within the first 18 months of the Obama administration; the statement was issued in June 2010. In the remaining years of the Obama Administration other issues took Presidential priority, and it was difficult for space policy concerns to get top-level attention.
One clear observation that follows from the above historical review is that many approaches to organizing White House space policy management are possible, and most have been tried in the last half-century. Thus, any structure that might emerge in the future is likely to resemble a prior structure or include elements of prior structures that had previously been tried. Experience suggests that there is no one “best” way of organizing the presidency for space.
A second, more immediately relevant, observation is that a separate White House Space Council has not been successful in demonstrating its superiority as an organizational approach to developing a space strategy or coordinating the space activities of executive agencies. Although the National Aeronautics and Space Council existed from 1958 to 1973, it never became the major, much less the sole, means for developing a comprehensive and coordinated national approach to space. With only a few exceptions, other Executive Office organizations, particularly the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Security Council, not to mention the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the heads of the executive branch space agencies, were not willing to defer to the Council as the primary forum for developing space policy options for the President.
Reestablishing the National Space Council in 1989 was an initiative forced on a reluctant White House by Congress. In its four years of operation, an activist council staff managed to alienate most executive agencies. Its major policy proposal, the Space Exploration Initiative, was stillborn; the council did not prove an effective mechanism for rallying broad support for a Presidential space initiative or for convincing the NASA leadership that the initiative was the proper course of action to follow. One possible reason for the Space Council’s lack of influence is that it has been headed during most of its history by a Vice President who was not a close ally of the President, who had no strong Washington political base of his own, and thus could not call on either the President’s or his own power to back up the guidance provided by the Council and its staff. In addition, by operating outside of the National Security Council structure, the Space Council found it very difficult to exert influence on national security space issues.
On the positive side, the National Space Council between 1989 and 1992 did commission two high-level external reviews of space issues and did create a well-qualified external Space Policy Advisory Board that was able to produce three insightful reports in a short period of time, demonstrating that there could be value in such an advisory body. The executive secretary of the National Space Council could serve as a spokesman for the White House on space policy matters. But the Space Council mechanism did not demonstrate sufficient value to be maintained in existence as the administration changed in 1993.
Giving the Office of Science and Technology Policy the lead responsibility in space policy, as was the case during the Carter and Clinton Administrations, is likely to have biased the policy debate toward treating space as a research and development issue. Approaching space issues from this perspective is not likely to fully capture all dimensions of a strategic approach to national space policy. In addition, OSTP has been one of the less influential bodies within the Executive Office structure, and thus the science adviser does not have a powerful organizational base. The reality is that over the past two decades the OSTP and NSC staffs have worked closely together, whichever parent organization has lead responsibility. However, at the more senior levels of decision making, OSTP leaders come from different backgrounds than their NSC counterparts, and as space issues have worked their way up the OSTP chain of command they were viewed by the White House inner circle differently, and as less important, than if they had been considered issues of broad national security policy.
Expanding the National Security Council space role
A persistent problem for White House control over the totality of the nation’s space effort has been the diffuse structures and strongly entrenched positions of the various elements of the national security space sector. It has been extremely difficult for the White House and Executive Office staff to penetrate and then influence the inner workings of that sector. A dedicated Space Council has had no more success in civil-national security space coordination than have other approached—perhaps even less success. It seems that within the White House structure only the National Security Council brings to bear the requisite perspectives and institutional position to have a reasonable chance to be effective in advancing US space power and linking it to US scientific, economic, and national security interests.
If this conclusion is accepted, then what steps follow from it? One obvious need is to increase the number of NSC staff working on space issues. For most of the period during which the NSC has had a major space policy responsibility, there has been only one person exercising that responsibility, and he has traditionally come with long experience in the national security space community but little exposure to other parts of the space community. Most of his time has been spent on dealing with short-term issues; there is little opportunity for strategic thinking or for leading a process to develop a national space strategy. Given the increasingly complex interactions among civilian government, private sector, and national security space activities, there is a need for a broader range of backgrounds and experience if such a comprehensive national strategy for space is to be crafted, and there needs to be enough staff depth to allow its development.
It thus seems advisable, rather than reconstituting a National Space Council with its own staff, to instead create within the NSC structure a separate small space office, with one senior director for space and three or four other staff members, at least two of them coming from outside the national security community. Rather than depending on OSTP staff for support, this would mean that the NSC would have in house all the staff capabilities needed to manage the development of space policies and strategies and their implementation.
Overseeing the work of this staff could be some sort of standing interagency body for space involving more senior officials than has recently been the case. In essence, this would be a Senior Interagency Group for space. This would provide for the White House a continuing interagency forum for discussing the state of the nation’s space capabilities and their use to achieve various national objectives. Such a body would need to go beyond the traditional National Security Council focus to reflect the interests and perspectives of the civilian and commercial space sectors as well as defense, intelligence, and foreign policy interests.
The benefits of creating a Presidential Space Advisory Group operating under NSC auspices are not as clear. There is limited precedent for the NSC having a standing external advisory committee, which would have to be the case if the NSC became the central focal point for national space issues. (One important exception to this statement is the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, or PFIAB.) Given the sensitivity of most issues that are considered in the NSC context, there might be issues of adequate clearances and confidentiality of such a group’s deliberations; an advisory committee operating under the guidelines of the Federal Advisory Committee Act is somewhat at odds with the character of National Security Council activities. The Vice President’s Space Policy Advisory Board was active for only six months in 1992 at the end of the first Bush Administration, so it is difficult to assess its value to space policymaking. On the other hand, that board did produce three useful reports in its brief existence, suggesting that there could be value in an external advisory group similar to PFIAB, operating under rules that allowed access to classified information and confidential advice to the Executive Office and the President.
There is one variable that could change the conclusion of this analysis: the intense engagement of a powerful Vice President in space issues. If Vice President Pence were to become, as some have suggested, the “chief operating officer” of the Trump administration and if he were to take on space leadership as one of his signature issues, then a Space Council, led by the Vice President with an empowered staff, might well be as effective, if not more effective, than a National Security Council-based group in carrying out the space strategy and coordinating roles.
Most fundamental, however, is convincing incoming President Trump that “the United States has a vital national interest in space… [Space] deserves the attention of the national leadership, from the President on down.” Providing a structure for effective Presidential space leadership will have limited impact if that leadership itself is missing. To enable full value from the nation’s space power, “sustained leadership must emerge, as it did early in the first [space] age, to guide and direct transformation of U.S. space efforts toward realizing their potential to serve the national interest.”8 Resurrecting a National Space Council, or the alternative, more modest steps suggested in this essay, will have little impact without Presidential space leadership.