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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?

After four months of public hearings and private deliberations, the President’s Commission on the Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy has issued its report. One of its recommendations is for the creation of a permanent “Space Exploration Steering Council, reporting to the President, with representatives of all appropriate federal agencies, and chaired by the Vice President or such other senior White House executive that the President may designate.” According to the Commission, “the council shall be empowered to develop policies and coordinate work by its agencies to share technologies, facilities, and talent with NASA to support the national space exploration vision.” The Commission noted that “typically, matters that involve multiple agency interests—or ones that relate to high national priority—receive such support.”

As defined by the Commission, this is a less powerful and less comprehensive organization than the previous National Space Council that existed from 1989 to 1993 during the administration of George H.W. Bush, and less comprehensive than the National Aeronautics and Space Council that existed from 1958 until 1973 under three presidents. The National Space Council had oversight of the entire civil space arena, whereas the Space Exploration Steering Council would be restricted only to the space exploration field, excluding such other subjects as remote sensing and launch vehicle policy and presumably also parts of NASA’s budget such as earth science. Such interactions with the other areas of civil and national security space policy would have to be worked out during the implementation phase.

Despite these differences, the closest analogies to the Space Exploration Steering Council are these two previous organizations, which were both run by the Vice President, and it is worth looking at the past history of these organizations to evaluate how successful such a Steering Council might be. These previous organizations suggest that a Space Exploration Steering Council is unlikely either to be adopted by a presidential administration, or to succeed at coordinating space exploration policy. For these reasons, the Space Exploration Steering Council is likely to be one recommendation that is dead on arrival.

The National Aeronautics and Space Council

In spring and summer 1958 both the Eisenhower administration and various members of Congress drafted legislation for creation of a civilian space agency. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson recommended the creation of a Space Policy Board in the White House. Johnson wanted the White House to maintain a strong emphasis on both military and civilian space programs. President Eisenhower objected to the board, feeling that it usurped his authority to run the White House the way he wanted, and that space was both not important enough for such a specialized board and would be sufficiently covered by other methods.

A Space Exploration Steering Council is unlikely either to be adopted by a presidential administration or to succeed at coordinating space exploration policy.

Eisenhower eventually agreed to the creation of a space policy board after meeting with Johnson, who proposed that the President be made chairman of the board and define its scope. The name of the organization was changed to the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC) and was established in August 1958 by the National Aeronautics and Space Act that also created NASA. The NASC included the Secretaries of State and Defense, the NASA Administrator, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and any additional members that the president chose to appoint. The council had an executive secretary who was allowed to hire a staff.

Eisenhower did not use the NASC extensively during the remainder of his term. He did not fill the post of executive secretary but named an acting secretary on loan from NASA. At the end of his last year in office he recommended that the NASC be abolished.

Shortly before assuming office, President-elect John F. Kennedy announced that he wanted his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, to become chairman of the NASC, requiring an amendment of the Space Act. According to NASA’s former general council, NASA Administrator James Webb was concerned that Johnson would try to run the civilian space program from the NASC and secured a promise from Kennedy that the president would control the council’s agenda.

The Vice President was named chairman of the NASC and the organization was formally placed in the Executive Office of the President. An executive secretary was hired to run the NASC staff. But before the organization could hire any staff or begin formal operations the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin in orbit around the earth. Kennedy asked Johnson to conduct an evaluation of how the United States could respond to the Soviet accomplishment. Within a little over a week Johnson replied to Kennedy’s request, suggesting that the United States could establish a lunar landing goal as a means of demonstrating American technological capability in space. Kennedy accepted this recommendation and in late May formally announced the Apollo lunar landing goal.

As the House Committee on Government Operations noted in the Nixon Administration, “the President cannot be compelled to utilize a policymaking and advisory apparatus in the Executive Office against his own preferences.”

The NASC apparently played an important role in drafting the legislation that created Comsat corporation. The staff also spent considerable time and effort in 1962 developing a national space policy statement, but this project fell apart when NASA Administrator Webb opposed it. After Lyndon Johnson became President, the NASC diminished in importance as Johnson increasingly chose to establish special interagency groups to address specific issues, or to bypass the NASC entirely. Webb had direct access to Johnson if he desired it and most other government agencies involved in space activities ignored the NASC when formulating policy. The NASC was reduced primarily to an information collection body within the White House.

President Richard Nixon did not eliminate the NASC upon assuming office in 1969, but he chose to bypass it when he established a task group to assess the future of American civilian space policy. After Nixon’s reelection in 1972 he proposed the elimination of the NASC as part of a sweeping reorganization of the Executive Office of the President. Although the NASC had been created by public law, there was little doubt about the President’s power to eliminate it. As the House Committee on Government Operations noted at the time, “the President cannot be compelled to utilize a policymaking and advisory apparatus in the Executive Office against his own preferences.” The NASC was eliminated and during the Ford and Carter administrations civilian space policy was usually addressed in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

During the first and second Reagan administrations space policy deliberations in the White House were conducted by the Senior Interagency Group for Space, known as SIG(Space), chaired by the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and established as a subcommittee of the National Security Council. Its formal membership included the Deputy or Under Secretaries of Defense, State, Commerce, the Director of Central Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the NASA Administrator. Notably only two civilian agencies, NASA and Commerce, were represented and could be easily out-voted by the other national security representatives. SIG(Space) policy decrees were also issued as classified National Security Decision Directives, although unclassified versions were also occasionally issued for civilian space policy issues. Because space policy was determined within the NSC, other matters such as crisis situations quickly pushed its deliberations aside. This method of formulating space policy was criticized by members of Congress, particularly the Democratic chairman of the House Science Committee. Throughout the 1980s the White House clashed with Congress over the existence and operations of SIG(Space).

In 1986 the National Commission on Space recommended the reinstitution of the National Space Council in its report Pioneering the Space Frontier. That same year several members of Congress managed to include language reestablishing the Space Council in the 1987 NASA authorization bill. That language essentially mirrored the earlier NASC, with the Vice President named as chairman of the new organization. President Reagan vetoed the bill in November 1986, specifically citing the space council language.

The following year language proposing the creation of a space council was removed from the final version of the NASA authorization bill in order to avoid another Reagan veto. In 1988 new, watered-down language recommending, but not requiring, the creation of a space council was inserted into the 1989 NASA authorization bill. After Reagan learned that then President-elect George H.W. Bush supported the creation of a space council he dropped his opposition to it. In November Reagan signed the bill stating that the National Space Council would be formally established on February 1, 1989. By December Bush announced plans to name his Vice President, Dan Quayle, to chair the new organization.

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