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NSRC 2023

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at the Kennedy Space Center in July, said he expects the first meeting of the new National Space Council, chaired by him, to take place by the end of the summer. (credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

A dim future for the National Space Council?

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The establishment of the National Space Council has been touted as a major development, ensuring the future success of the US space program especially with regards to NASA. Why that is considered true is not entirely clear, as we will discuss briefly. The obstacles to a revitalized US civil space program are significant and not easily overcome while the council is not necessarily the mechanism for doing so (see “Is creating a National Space Council the best choice?”, The Space Review, January 3, 2017). The National Security Council (NSC) has grown to great importance as presidents normally create an alternative to the State Department while the National Space Council (NSpC, to differentiate it from the National Security Council) remains a work in progress. The new executive secretary, Scott Pace, will find the realities confronted by the National Space Council challenging. This essay is an effort is to elaborate some of those issues.

Some cautionary notes

Despite presidential rhetoric about “Making America Great Again,” that impulse does not include NASA. Lacking permanent leadership and no discernable clear future, the agency’s role is becoming that of supporter of the private sector while its space science programs are thinned out in pursuit of a new political correctness with regards to climate change. Earth science programs involving new satellites to collect data relevant to possible study of climate change are being cut, while NOAA satellites are being delayed. The cuts also include the Earth-imaging payload on an operating satellite, DSCOVR.

Republicans envision a smaller federal government overall but a larger military, which bodes poorly for agencies in the discretionary portion of the budget,like NASA.

Whether Mars or the Moon is the next US human spaceflight objective is unclear as a presidentially-sanctioned goal, although the controversial Asteroid Redirect Mission was cancelled, as widely expected. NASA is building the space infrastructure, or at least planning the infrastructure, that will make human spaceflight to both destinations possible. The Deep Space Gateway will support a variety of deep space expeditions. This directly supports the Space Launch System (SLS) and its Orion spacecraft, which remain the most visible signs of a continued NASA human spaceflight program. The difficulty is that their projected flight rate is so miniscule as to be only one step ahead of shutdown. Space science is planning future missions, but their viability is now in question for several reasons, primarily uncertain budgets.

Republicans now control all three political branches in Washington. Their central political mantra remains tax cuts and budget reductions. Both, in principle, envision a smaller federal government overall but a larger military, which bodes poorly for agencies in the discretionary portion of the budget. NASA is clearly a discretionary budget entry, the area in which GOP budget proposals envision major reductions.

Growing reliance on the private sector envisions NASA in a supportive role, but this conflicts with long-term budget possibilities. Too often, it is forgotten that NASA, over the two previous presidential administrations, set the groundwork that made SpaceX and Orbital Sciences’ surges possible. Both companies—especially SpaceX—took off using NASA contracts to leverage developing their capabilities. Further, NASA support for human spaceflight boosted private sector efforts by SpaceX and Boeing through contracts for transporting crew to the International Space Station (ISS).

The point is that NASA is losing its central role with regards to space policy outside space science, which becoming controversial, at least politically speaking. Deep space expeditions with humans appears more problematic in the short run given the growing evidence regarding the effects of prolonged microgravity on the human body while the radiation hazards appear to be more intense and deadly than expected. This does not mean solutions cannot be found, but budget realities make it more difficult for NASA to be the leader or even possibly a significant partner.

Meanwhile, what is running in the background is a resurgence in the military’s aspirations regarding crewed spaceflight. The X-37B missions have been long-duration flights without crew, but lay the groundwork for future crewed flights. The showstopper thus far for such aspirations has been identification of a viable military mission that requires the presence of humans as operator in space.

The NSpC reflects the space policy establishment’s fascination with past solutions in the hope that they will solve current problems.

Why this is important for the NSpC comes in two forms. First, government-funded space endeavors operate in a hostile political environment. The NSpC may be simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic given the possible lack of future budget growth for NASA. Managing budget decline is an art that few in Washington have any real experience with. Mick Mulvaney, director of Office of Management and Budget, said when announcing the FY 2018 budget with its proposed draconian cuts that government spending would be cut by a cumulative $3.36 trillion by 2027. These projected savings would come mostly out of discretionary spending. In any case, this downward budget pressure will affect NASA. In a zero-sum budget environment, NASA may not do well, reducing what leverage the NSpC might have in influencing future policy directions.

Second, the military in this administration eats first and speaks directly to the president. This translates into growing space sectors whose future will remain outside the NSpC’s influence unless the military and commercial choose to comply. This mostly will not matter unless a conflict arises between military space aspirations and civil space operations. Fifty years after the founding decisions were made concerning the division of labor (in a manner of speaking) in conducting US space activities, any new choices made will likely not be supportive of NASA. Rather, NASA will also confront declining budgets and increasing competition from both the commercial and military sectors.

As the commercial sector advances, the NSpC will become increasingly irrelevant in terms of establishing the future directions for US space policy. The military and commercial sectors, with their independent access to key decision makers, will dominate. Obviously, the idea here is that once established patterns of behavior are disrupted, returning to the previous status quo is unlikelym especially since NASA will be so weakened by budget cuts. The community supporting NASA is based largely in the universities, which are losing credibility with Congress, while the military and commercial sectors will become more attractice given their rising relative shares of the space economic pie.

Last thoughts

The NSpC reflects the space policy establishment’s fascination with past solutions in the hope that they will solve current problems. Much like the Apollo complex that dominated NASA’s visions of the future, the hope there was always to return to the days of glory and milk and honey, big and always increasing budgets. Accepting that Apollo was not returning as a viable program took two generations within the agency and larger community. Budgets have stabilized, all things considered, but are not growing sufficiently to allow for expansive plans, constantly frustrating NASA leadership and its outside supporters in the attentive public. The National Space Council is yet another iteration in attempting to recapture the past, which looks more glorious the farther it recedes into history.

Ironically, the NSpC was seen by many of its supporters as the mechanism through which they can impose their vision of the future for US human spaceflight. Remember, a NASA administrator, Richard Truly, was forced out because he opposed the council’s plans for NASA in the early 1990s. But, unfortunately, that bird has flown the coop. Yhe NASA commercial crew programhas already set its competition into motion, limiting NASA’s purview to deep space even as unfortunate budget realities make that a long and hard trail to follow. The National Space Council can clearly do some things to make the US space program more coherent, but not as much as was possible in the early 1990s when the commercial sector was still developing and the military was interested in other things as the Cold War ended.