Op-ed | Don’t pull the trigger before you load the gun; solving a decades-old problem with a National Space Council

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This commentary originally appeared in the May 22, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Twice it was stood up, and twice it was knocked down. What makes the third time a charm?

President Trump signed his first NASA authorization bill with Vice President Pence at his side. Pence said he will lead a revamped National Space Council. While the devil is in the details, it must be armed if it’s reestablished. Pulling the trigger on the National  Space Council before it learns from the past is like firing an empty gun: it won’t have the desired effect.

The concept of a single entity providing comprehensive oversight of America’s activities in outer space was part of the gestation period that gave birth to our space capabilities. Before human spaceflight began with the Mercury program, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 created a council the president presided over.  It was called the National Aeronautics and Space Council.

It  lasted 15 years before it was disbanded.

A White House-level space council was resurrected in Aprile 1989 when then-President George H.W. Bush signed Executive Order 12675. The National Space Council was chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle and authorized a User’s Advisory Board. The intent of the council included reviewing long-range goals; developing a national strategy for space activities; and coordinating civil, national security, and commercial space sector issues.

The National Space Council lasted five years before it dissolved.

Why did these two endeavors come to an end? What was their demise? What should be “revamped” for the next go around?

Six “bullets” will ensure success.

1)  The National Space Council must stand alone with the vice president as the chair. Subordination lessons impact. In the past, the council was under the National Security Council and the White House Office of Science and Technology. Agencies and departments will not abdicate decision-making to an undersecretary level.

2)  National Space Council membership must be kept to the key players. There are approximately 60 U.S. government office stakeholders in the space program. The National Space Council should have a chair and three representatives each from civil, national security, and commercial space sectors.

3)  The commercial sector, a key component of the space enterprise, must have a seat at the table. In the history of U.S. space endeavors, the commercial and government have never been separate. They form the foundation of America’s preeminence in space. This synergistic relationship is behind every major accomplishment in space.

4)   Congress should play a vital role. An executive secretary that is a presidential-nominee and Senate-confirmed allows Congress to compel testimony. There are a dozen congressional committees with jurisdiction over space policy and testimony is warranted and ought to be welcomed.

5)  A subordinate board is critical. The vice president and cabinet-level secretaries don’t make decisions without being informed ahead of time. They need a subordinate board to work out details, make compromises, and reach consensus.

6)  The subordinate board must work with existing committees to bring the discussion up a level and share across the entire enterprise. Committees at the agency and department level are doing an incredible amount of good work and the National Space Council needs to build on this work.

No “magic bullet” exists among these recommendations that can be fired independently. Together, they provide the ammunition for a successful space council.

Granted, there are those who think this will never work. The ability to bring civil, national security, and commercial together is too hard. There are others who don’t believe the commercial industry should have a seat at a policy-making table. The reality is, commercial companies and government agencies operate together when the function is too important to fail.

In some cases, they are called Government-Sponsored Enterprises and are chartered for a public purpose but are privately owned, for-profit companies.

COMSAT and Landsat provide examples close to the space industry. COMSAT’s initial purpose was to serve as a federally funded public corporation. Landsat provides an example of a relationship between commercial and government entities that changes over time but benefits both in the long term.

Numerous studies have concluded the U.S. space enterprise is fractured and the National Space Council is required. These have ranged from the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization in 2001 and the Allard Commission in 2008 to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. To compound the problem, we now face a congested and contested space environment where resiliency is a major concern and many more actors are involved than we have had in the past.

Resurrecting the National Space Council is the right thing to do as long as we learn from previous endeavors and load the gun to ensure the desired effect.

That’s the solution to a decades-old problem.

Rick Barrowman is a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency officer and a national security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.