White House not expected to rush development of new space policy

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WASHINGTON — Two people who served on the NASA transition team for the Trump administration said July 11 they don’t expect the White House to rush the development of a new national space policy.

In a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Propulsion and Energy Forum in Atlanta, Sandra Magnus and Chris Shank said they expected the Trump administration to use the newly-reestablished National Space Council to draft such a policy, but that it would not necessarily be a priority for it.

“There are some other pressing problems to be had there as well, as well as the annual budgeting and appropriations,” said Shank, who chaired the agency review team, or “landing team,” assigned to NASA by the incoming administration, and who is now senior advisor to the secretary and the under secretary of the Air Force.

“I bet it would take them a couple of years, at a minimum, if they started right away,” said Magnus, the executive director of AIAA who served on the landing team. Both panelists noted they were speaking for themselves and not their current organizations.

The discussion was prompted by an audience question about the timing for the development of an overarching national space policy. The Obama administration released its national space policy in June 2010, less than 18 months after taking office.

The George W. Bush administration did not release its space policy until mid-2006, five a half years after taking office. However, it did release policies on specific issues, from space transportation to commercial remote sensing, earlier in the administration.

Shank suggested that the White House might take incremental measures leading up to a policy. “There’s a speed of government and a speed of business,” he said. “I think the speed of business for a number of folks within the administration is to make little shifts along the way as opposed to waiting.”

The National Space Council, which last operated at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration in 1993, was formally reestablished by President Trump in an executive order he signed June 30. Vice President Mike Pence said in a July 6 speech at the Kennedy Space Center that he expected the council to hold its first meeting by the end of the summer.

Shank noted in his remarks in the panel that he was asked for advice on how to set up the council in February by Pence’s office. “He was personally interested in the [NASA] agency review team report in January, and was telling his staff to get going on the space council,” Shank recalled.

That work included discussing how the council would work with other groups, like the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. “There’s more details than simply what’s in that executive order itself,” he said.

Magnus, who attended the executive order signing ceremony at the White House on behalf of AIAA, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects of the new council. “I think there’s a lot of potential here,” she said. “What we could use as a nation is an integrated strategy for how we want to approach space.”

She also defended the administration’s delays in selecting a NASA administrator. Despite rumors of interviews of candidates and impending announcements, the White House has yet to nominate someone for that position, as well as the post of deputy administrator.

“I don’t think that it signals that it is a low priority” for the administration, said Magnus, a former astronaut who has been among those rumored to be in consideration for the job. “They have a lot of things on their plate and they keep putting things on their plate. There are fires that are a little bit more important to put out before they get to NASA administrator.”

“Personnel vetting takes times,” added Shank, who noted the delays in getting positions filled at the Pentagon. “I don’t think this is a lack of priority at all by the administration.”