The U.S. Chamber of Commerce owes the corporate members of the Space Enterprise Council (SEC) an explanation for its precipitous decision to dissolve their organization. If that explanation does not come voluntarily, the parent companies of the SEC members, some of which belong to the chamber – and pay $100,000 or more per year for the privilege – should demand one.

In what sources familiar with the situation characterized as a bolt from the blue, the Chamber of Commerce, an influential group that represents some 3 million businesses and organizations, informed SEC Executive Director David Logsdon March 4 that the nine-year old council would be disbanded effective May 1. According to numerous sources, the chamber’s explanation was that the SEC did not fit within the chamber’s international affairs division.

While there’s a certain logic to that reasoning, the SEC has resided in the international division since its inception in 2000, apparently without any negative impact to the division’s operations. Moreover, there are other chamber divisions that might more appropriately host the SEC, but apparently an internal relocation was never given serious consideration.

As a result, an organization that was coming into its own as a space industry advocate and a facilitator of dialogue between the government and private sector faces at best an uncertain future. No matter what happens, the SEC will lose the status that goes with being affiliated with the high-profile chamber, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in

The chamber cannot say the SEC was not pulling its weight financially. Knowledgeable sources said the council was self-sufficient, with dues paid by its 35 members more than covering the salaries of its two full-time employees and any overhead costs associated with being co-located at the chamber’s headquarters. In fact, the SEC had built up a rainy-day fund over the years that sources estimate is in excess of $200,000.

This raises the question of what happens to that money – along with the 2009 membership dues already paid by several of the SEC’s members – now that the chamber has unilaterally elected to sever ties. This money was being kept in the chamber’s coffers; whether the chamber has any intention of returning it is unclear.

Perhaps those SEC members who also belong to the chamber – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and ITT come to mind – can help secure the money’s return. Not only does the cash rightfully belong to the SEC, it would come in handy as the council seeks to reconstitute itself. Should these companies opt not to get involved in the money matter, they should at least show support for their space sectors by writing the chamber to formally express their displeasure at the way the whole situation has been handled.

The chamber’s action comes at a particularly inopportune time: The U.S. space industry is facing a number of challenges, including military and civil-space budgets that are likely to start declining in 2011, stifling export regulations whose negative impacts are becoming increasingly clear, an aging work force and, on top of all that, a severe global economic recession. The space industry needs dedicated advocacy groups like the SEC, which in 2004 expanded its portfolio to include civil and military as well as commercial space.

According to the chairman of the SEC’s board, the council is evaluating options for its future and has already been approached by several organizations that might be interested in a partnership arrangement. Several sources said privately that one potential partner is the National Association of Manufacturers, whose mission – enhancing the competitiveness of
manufacturers – is consistent with that of the SEC.

It is as encouraging that a number of organizations see potential value in the SEC as it is puzzling that the chamber apparently did not. In any case, the space industry deserves better.