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Vice President Mike Pence speaking at the December 9 National Space Council meeting. (credit: White House)

Twilight for Trump space policy

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On December 9, the National Space Council met for the eighth and last time in the Trump Administration at the Kennedy Space Center. The event, held in the Apollo/Saturn V Center there, with that rocket above attendees’ heads, was something of a season finale for the council. Cabinet secretaries and other officials spent about an hour recounting the work they had done in space policy in the last four years, from the establishment of the Space Force to commercial space regulatory reforms.

“Allow me to express my appreciation to all of the members of the space council and to reflect, for just a few moments before we get started, on how much has changed over the last four years,” Vice President Mike Pence said in his opening remarks. “One thing is clear: in four short years, America is leading in space once again. It’s true.”

“It’s similar to past policies in that it reflects long-standing efforts that extend back decades to the beginning of the Space Age, while recognizing new challenges and new opportunities in front of us,” said Pace of the new national space policy.

Some might take issue with that claim, not because they don’t think America is leading in space but that America was already leading four years ago. Many of the achievements of the last four years had their roots in earlier administrations, like the commercial crew program that restored human orbital spaceflight capabilities to the US.

The Trump Administration, though, did place its stamp on space policy in a number of areas. The council meeting at KSC, while largely a summary of the last four years, featured a couple of announcements. Near the end of the two-hour meeting, Pence and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the “Artemis Team”: a group of 18 NASA astronauts who will be eligible for future assignments to Artemis missions. Five of the 18 were present at the meeting, but didn’t speak until a press Q&A session after the meeting concluded.

The other was a formal release of a new national space policy. For decades, every administration has published a national space policy, with the last update by the Obama Administration in 2010. While the Trump White House has released a series of space policy directives since 2017 on topics ranging from space exploration to cybersecurity, it was only now getting to an update of the overall national space policy.

“It’s similar to past policies in that it reflects long-standing efforts that extend back decades to the beginning of the Space Age, while recognizing new challenges and new opportunities in front of us,” said Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, in brief remarks at the meeting to introduce the policy.

Given what he called a “dynamic” international environment, Pace added, “it’s important that the US space activities across all sectors—civil, commercial, and national security—be coordinated at the highest levels in an integrated manner to advance our national interests, and those of our allies and partners.”

As Pace said, the new policy is more of an update and adjustment of the 2010 policy, rather than a wholesale change. The previous policy led off with five principles, such as the “the shared interest of all nations to act responsibly in space” and support for a “robust and competitive commercial space sector.”

The new policy has six principles, but with much of the same general language as the earlier policy. A new entry states that in “this resurgent era of space exploration, the United States will expand its leadership alongside nations that share its democratic values, respect for human rights, and economic freedom.” The principle about how outer space is not subject to national appropriation now includes language endorsing “the extraction and utilization of space resources in compliance with applicable law.” And the principle about self-defense now includes stronger language, stating that any attack on the space systems of the US or allies “will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing.”

SPD-6 “establishes a national strategy to ensure the development and use of [space nuclear power and propulsion] systems,” it stated.

There are other changes throughout the new policy that largely reflect the changes of the past decade. The section on national security space reflects the formation of both the Space Force and U.S. Space Command, neither of which existed before last year. The civil space section directs NASA to return humans (specifically, “the next American man and the first American woman”) to the Moon by 2024, as Pence announced in March 2019. The commercial space section includes language directing the Commerce Department to develop “minimally burdensome, responsive, transparent, and adaptive review, authorization, and supervision processes” for commercial space activities outside the scope of existing licensing regimes, a concept called “mission authorization” that’s been discussed for several years.

Space nuclear power policy

The release of the new national space policy at the National Space Council meeting looked to many like the wrap-up of the Trump Administration’s space policy efforts. Development of the policy, of course, took many months, and many of the people involved in its development expected, or hoped, there would be a second term. The policy, though, was released just six weeks before Inauguration Day, leaving little time for any additional policy work.

But little time is not the same as no time. A week after the council meeting, the White House published another space policy document, Space Policy Directive (SPD) 6. This was devoted to space nuclear power and propulsion, or SNPP, a topic touched upon in the overall national space policy, outlining responsibilities for NASA, the Pentagon, and the Department of Energy, among other agencies.

SPD-6, though, is more of a strategy than a detailed policy. “This memorandum establishes a national strategy to ensure the development and use of SNPP systems when appropriate to enable and achieve the scientific, exploration, national security, and commercial objectives of the United States,” the policy states.

Much of SPD-6 is devoted to a roadmap for space nuclear development, including work on surface nuclear power systems needed for missions to the Moon and Mars as well as nuclear thermal and nuclear electric propulsion systems. The document includes goals of demonstrating a fission power system on the Moon by the mid to late 2020s that can be scaled up for later use on Mars. By the late 2020s, NASA and the Defense Department will “establish the technical foundations and capabilities” for nuclear thermal propulsion, such as work on key technologies.

Much of that work is already in progress. NASA and the Department of Energy have been working on a surface nuclear power program called Kilopower, with plans to demonstrate a small reactor on the Moon by the late 2020s. NASA has also been working on nuclear thermal propulsion for later missions to Mars, spurred on by members of Congress who want to see a flight demonstration of that technology as soon as 2024 (a date considered highly unlikely.)

A senior administration official, speaking on background about the policy, confirmed that SPD-6 was more about organizing and prioritizing existing activities than starting new ones. “We have these individual initiatives going on—nuclear thermal power, the Kilopower activities—and what we’re trying to do is pull together a common operating picture for Defense, NASA, and DOE,” the official said.

Putting surface nuclear power ahead of nuclear thermal propulsion was also a deliberate move, that official said. Fission reactors like those being developed by Kilopower will be needed for extended stays on the Moon, given its two-week lunar night and permanently shadowed regions that are of interest. Nuclear thermal power is useful for later missions to Mars, “but first we’re doing the Moon and leveraging terrestrial capabilities and technologies to put that foothold on the Moon.”

In addition to that roadmap, SPD-6 outlined goals and principles for space nuclear power and propulsion development, with the latter an alliterative trio: safety, security, and sustainability. Safety includes regulations for safe development, launch, and operations of such systems, such as launch regulations that were updated last year. Sustainability endorses concepts like commonality of technologies and cost effectiveness.

“We did want to set an extremely high bar for non-defense use” of HEU, the official said, “but we didn’t want to rule it out.”

Security largely deals with nonproliferation issues. Last year, some nuclear nonproliferation experts raised warnings about NASA’s Kilopower plans in particular. Earlier tests used highly enriched uranium (HEU), and those experts were worried that the use of HEU on flight hardware might encourage the restart of production of HEU, which is also used in nuclear weapons (see “Space exploration and nuclear proliferation”, The Space Review, November 4, 2019).

SPD-6 discourages, but does not explicitly prohibit, the use of HEU in space systems. “Before selecting HEU or, for fission reactor systems, any nuclear fuel other than low-enriched uranium (LEU), for any given SNPP design or mission, the sponsoring agency shall conduct a thorough technical review to assess the viability of alternative nuclear fuels,” the policy states.

Those nonproliferation concerns, along with progress on fuels like high-assay LEU that offer performance similar to HEU, led the administration to include that language. But the senior administration official emphasized that the intent of the policy was only to discourage, not prohibit, the use of HEU. “We did want to set an extremely high bar for non-defense use,” the official said, “but we didn’t want to rule it out.”

What’s the future of the National Space Council?

The council meeting in Florida earlier this month is the last for the current administration, but was it a season finale or a series finale? The incoming Biden Administration has said little about space, either before or after the election, so it’s unclear if they will keep the council or allow it to go dormant again, as it was for nearly a quarter-century before the Trump Administration revived it in 2017.

There was a lot of skepticism about the need for a National Space Council back in 2017, with some seeing it as another layer of bureaucracy more likely to slow down interagency discussions rather than facilitate them. More than three years later, though, there’s widespread agreement that the council has been helpful.

“We think the National Space Council has been useful in increase both the public and the interagency visibility of space policy and space policy decision-making,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation. That organization released a report December 1 that offered space policy recommendations for the Biden Administration, including keeping the National Space Council.

As Weeden put it, National Space Council meetings should be “more deliberative and a little less performative.”

The council, Weeden said, has also been a “forcing function” on policy by requiring agencies to provide regular updates on their progress on various issues. “We encourage the Biden Administration to continue the National Space Council as the main body for developing and coordinating space policy,” he said.

The foundation does recommend some tweaks to the council, in particular how the public meetings take place. Those meetings, the report states, “are more staged events than serious discussions of space policy, prompting much of the previous public excitement to fade.” Or, as Weeden put it, those meetings should be “more deliberative and a little less performative.”

Another issue the Secure World Foundation has with the council is the composition of its Users’ Advisory Group. The group is dominated by executives of aerospace companies and industry groups along with “several members whose only qualifications are their political connections,” the foundation’s report states.

Weeden said the foundation wanted to see “representation of more users of space” on the committee, which would include end users of space applications and services rather than primarily the companies that produce them.

The current National Space Council still has a few more weeks of work, though. In that discussion about SPD-6, that senior administration official wouldn’t rule out additional policy documents before January 20. “We’re getting near the end, but we’re not done yet,” the official said.

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