Foust Forward | How much advice is too much for the White House regarding space?

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the June 25, 2018 issue.

President Trump recently offered an off-the-cuff space policy statement that took many people by surprise. It raised eyebrows and prompted plenty of snark online. And no, it had nothing to do with the Space Force.

“And I think you saw the other day, we’re reopening NASA,” Trump said towards the end of a rally June 20 in Duluth, Minnesota. “We’re going to be going to space.”

President Donald Trump, speaks before signing the Presidential Space Directive - 1, directing NASA to return to the moon, in the Roosevelt room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
President Donald Trump, speaks before signing the Presidential Space Directive – 1, directing NASA to return to the moon, in the Roosevelt room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

No one is quite sure what the president meant by that statement. NASA hasn’t been closed and has been going to space regularly, of course. Although policies have changed, and the agency finally has a new administrator, NASA is still working on most of the same programs and dealing with the same problems as it was a couple years ago.

But if the president and others in the White House need more input on the real state of NASA and other national space activities, they now have another source. On June 19, the day after the latest meeting of the National Space Council, the council’s Users’ Advisory Group (UAG) met for the first time.

The group, established by the same executive order that revived the council, is intended to provide advice to the council on any issue related to space. Vice President Mike Pence, at a reception at his residence for the group’s members the evening before, called it a “think tank” for the council he chairs: “be the eyes and ears in industry, bring us your best ideas.”

The UAG is something of a blank slate, having never existed in previous incarnations of the space council. “This is an opportunity today to begin to shape the Users’ Advisory Group both in process and in performance,” said retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Ellis, chairman of the UAG, at the group’s first meeting.

Anything related to space is fair game for the UAG. “There are no red lines or issues that are off the table,” Ellis said. He announced a set of six subcommittees for the group, covering topics from national security to education. Members will soon be assigned to subcommittees to begin deliberations, and the full group plans to meet at least three times a year.

But the danger is that a committee that is able to look at everything related to space will have problems doing anything related to space. A broad mandate runs the risk of offering shallow advice. Moreover, the industry-heavy composition of the group may make it less effective in some areas, like science, that are underrepresented.

A bigger issue is whether the space community needs another advisory group at all. There’s already an extensive set of groups that advise the U.S. government agencies involved in space. NASA alone has an advisory council with several subcommittees, as well as other committees devoted to safety and ISS operations. Another group advises NOAA on commercial remote-sensing issues, and the FAA recently reestablished its Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).

Those groups will continue to support their agencies, which all have seats on the full space council. At a COMSTAC meeting June 14, Scott Pace, executive secretary of the council, assured the group he was still interested in what advice such groups can offer. “I need to care about what the industry, as a whole, needs,” he told the group.

Such groups, which tend to be more narrowly focused than the UAG, have also been more effective in advising agencies and seeking changes in programs or policies. A UAG that tries to be all things for all users may struggle to be effective, particularly when many of its members will be busy with their day jobs.

But, perhaps, the UAG can serve one key role: reminding the president that NASA, and the rest of the nation’s space program, remains open for business.


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.