When the White House announced in late March that it would retain the National Space Council, there were signs of relief throughout the space community. Since it was reestablished in 2017, the council has emerged as a key coordinating mechanism for civil, commercial and national security space issues. “A whole-of-government approach through a body such as the space council,” said Andrew Allen, acting head of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, an industry group, “will provide the necessary forum to ensure the continued coordination of space policy.”
Just four years ago, that broad support for the council would have been surprising. Three administrations had come and gone without an active National Space Council, and people tended to remember the dysfunction the last time it operated in the early 1990s. When he ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama proposed reestablishing the council, but never followed through on it, concluding space policy could be handled by the National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The Trump administration, though, demonstrated that the council could be an effective tool for coordination rather than just be another layer of bureaucracy. It generated policies on topics ranging from commercial space regulatory reform to space nuclear power, working with a wide range of agencies. Can it do so again?
The Biden administration is at least willing to try. Vice President Kamala Harris confirmed May 1 that she would chair the council, although exactly when the council will resume work has not been announced. “She looked at it along with the president and decided that, for maintaining U.S. space leadership, it would be the right thing to do to maintain the council and have her chair it,” a senior administration official said in a call with reporters the same day.
Harris doesn’t have much of a track record on space. She wasn’t active in space during her four years in the Senate, and since becoming vice president has largely been involved in ceremonial activities, such as talking to astronauts on the space station or swearing in Bill Nelson as NASA administrator.
Harris didn’t elaborate on her plans for the council beyond the single tweet where she announced she would chair it, and White House officials offered few details. A search for an executive secretary that will run the council on a day-to-day basis is “well underway,” but the administration official didn’t offer a schedule for hiring that person or for convening the council’s first meeting. Kendra Horn, the former congresswoman who chaired the House space subcommittee in her single term in office, is rumored to be a leading candidate for executive secretary.
There’s no shortage of topics for the National Space Council to tackle. The White House said that Harris will place her “personal stamp” on the council, addressing topics such as climate change, diversity and STEM education. Those will be on top of existing issues such as exploration, space security and sustainable commercial space development.
The question remains, though, how effectively Harris, her executive secretary, and others involved with the council will be in addressing all those issues. The White House official suggested Harris would run the council a little differently than Mike Pence, who chaired a series of public meetings that featured space shuttles and Saturn 5 rockets as backdrops. “I think her approach to this is just going to be to get the job done, and use this to lead our space policy, and not really focus perhaps as much on big displays,” that official said.
The real question, though, isn’t the style of the meetings but the substance of the policymaking. A 2016 white paper by The Aerospace Corporation offered several factors it believed would be key to the success of the National Space Council, from the president’s level of interest and organizational structure to both formal and informal relationships with individuals and agencies. That can explain the council’s effectiveness in the previous administration, and will be critical to sustaining that success in the current administration.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the May 2021 issue.