In the past two weeks two high profile statements regarding the future of
national space policy and its organization have been released and both contain the same core recommendation: revive the White House National Space Council (NSC).

The National Security Space (NSS) Independent Assessment Panel mandated by Congress and known by the name of its primary congressional sponsor, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), reported Aug. 13 that “there is no National Space Strategy,” “no one is in charge,” and “no mechanism (exists) to assure funding and implementation of National Space Policy.” As a remedy to this condition they recommend a reinstitution of the White House National Space Council “to implement the National Space Strategy, assign roles and responsibilities, and adjudicate requirements and resources.”

Not one week later, presidential candidate, Sen. BarackObama (D-Ill.), released a space policy position paper titled, “Advancing the Frontiers of Space Exploration” that observes that “there is currently no organizational authority in the Federal government with a sufficiently broad mandate to oversee a comprehensive and integrated strategy and policy dealing with all aspects of the government’s space-related programs,” and that he “will re-establish this Council. It will oversee and coordinate civilian, military, commercial and national security space activities.”

From 1989 until 1992, I was executive secretary of the National Space Council and I concur, the
United States
not only lacks a clear National Space Strategy, it lacks any focus for development, implementation and management of that strategy. And I agree a National Space Council is ideally suited to meet these needs.

For far too long, important space policy matters have been delegated to individual organizations and agencies with a resulting hodge-podge of overlapping and redundant systems, architectures, programs and capabilities. There has been no consistent and coherent approach to the role of commercial space in national space policy and no long-term strategy or vision for international cooperation, collaboration or coordination. A National Space Council should address these issues and provide a forum and authority for resolving them and managing their implementation.

Historically the Space Council has been chaired by the vice president and managed by an executive secretary. The council has observed this organizational relationship in the White House through the administrations of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. Both the NSS Independent Assessment Panel and the Obama campaign argue for a change in this arrangement.

The NSS panel suggests that the National Security Advisor should chair the council and the NSC should manage its operations, and Sen. Obama, while silent on chairmanship, indicates he would have the council report directly to the president.

During my tenure as executive secretary of the National Space Council, I was fortunate to have in Vice President Dan Quayle not only an intelligent, insightful and engaged public servant who had a clear vision for the space program and outstanding relationship with the president, but also in National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Dick Darman and science adviser Alan Bromley, a senior advisory team that saw the value and importance of the Space Council and afforded it broad authority in managing space policy and programmatic matters. I can recall no instances when either the NSC, or the Office of Management and Budget or the Office of Science and Technology Policy circumvented the National Space Council process or recommendations to the president. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this was more a result of personalities and proclivities than the structure itself (I was fortunate that Scowcroft, Darman and Bromley as well as the first chief of staff, John Sununu, were all space enthusiasts).

I do, however, believe that the time to change this organizational arrangement is upon us. The vice presidency is an awkward institution. Informally, of course, it has become a vital part of the modern presidency, but formally, it is poorly adapted to integrate into executive branch processes. Having a chairman of a White House Council who does not make decisions is confusing and an opportunity for dysfunction and mischief. While in all instances I can recall, recommendations made by the vice president on behalf of the council were endorsed by the president, it didn’t have to be so.

On the other hand, delegating the Space Council to the NSC has even more problems in my judgment. First, the NSC adviser’s plate is already very full. To be sure, many issues are appropriately suited to NSC insight, like arms control, but for a host of infrastructure issues and civil and commercial space matters this as a practical matter likely would be delegated to additional specialized NSC staff, thus even further removing the center of gravity from the president. This is not to mention the general alienation the NSC forum itself engenders in civil and domestic agencies and constituencies.

In my opinion, the National Space Council should be organized like other White House councils, with the president as chair and an assistant to the president and national space adviser who manages the staff and the process on his or her behalf. It is an idea whose time has come – again.

Mark Albrecht was executive secretary of the National Space Council from 1989 to 1992, and is the former president of International Launch Services.