Over the past month, two events have energized space advocates with the hope that aerospace issues could be a higher priority in the next administration.
First, Sen. BarackObama (D-Ill.) declared his intent to re-establish the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC) and have it report directly to him. This iteration of the Council will “oversee and coordinate civilian, military, commercial, and national security activities.”
The second boost came from the National Security Space Independent Assessment Panel, known as the Allard Commission after U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) who is responsible for the bill language that mandated the creation of the panel. The seven-member panel criticized the way national security space requirements are developed and implemented and called for a radical reorganization of the Defense Department and intelligence management structure for space. Their final report includes a recommendation to re-establish the National Space Council – without aeronautics – chaired by the National Security Advisor.
Regardless of who wins in November, an extreme makeover of the interagency space policy and program coordination process deserves a thorough and early review by the incoming presidential transition team. However, before pledging allegiance to a new and improved space council, the transition team should ask: What is the question for which a new space council is the answer? The transition team would benefit from reviewing “The National Space Council,” a 1989 report by the Congressional Research Service. The document cautions that the “Space Council is invoked so frequently as the answer to civilian space program dilemmas that it may be in danger of being overburdened with expectations.”
To better manage expectations, the report defines potential functions that a council might perform. The inventory includes interagency coordination and policy oversight; increased visibility of civil space; review of the civil space program; liaison with the commercial space sector; policy continuity and stability; and short-term solutions or long-term goals. The same functions apply when considering the national security space program.
Of these functions, it is interagency coordination and policy oversight that warrants the immediate attention of the transition team. With an emphasis on improved coordination, the fundamental question now becomes: How should the executive branch organize to most effectively manage and direct the federal government’s space investments? Framing the question in this matter invites a broader analysis of how to more effectively manage the annual $50 billion the nation spends on civil, national security and intelligence space activities.
Supporters of a revived NASC believe that a new dedicated organization is the best way to achieve improved policy coordination and to set national goals for space. In their judgment the direction and coordination of civil space activities has been dysfunctional since the demise of the National Space Council that existed under President George H.W. Bush. That venue, which did not include aeronautics, is remembered fondly by the space community because it featured a commitment from the president; was chaired by the vice president; and gave the lead for space policy to elected officials rather than NASA bureaucrats.
Other than a successful campaign to save the Landsat program, the Bush Council had a slim portfolio of accomplishments. Their signature issue, the Space Exploration Initiative, failed to garner political or public support and was never funded. A series of reports on different aspects of space were favorably received, but were not published until the end of the term. There is no consensus that the removal of then NASA Administrator Richard Truly can be scored as an accomplishment.
In the intervening years since President George H.W. Bush’s administration, space issues have been managed by various interagency processes with primary oversight residing with the Office of Science and Technology Policy or the National Security Council (NSC) – and, in the opinion of many, with too much participation of the Office of Management and Budget. The NSC’s participation in space dates back to 1955 when it approved the plan to orbit a science satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year. Today, its policy coordination process features agency participation through a Principals Committee, a Deputies Committee and Policy Coordination Committees, including one dedicated to space.
There is a perception that the Security Council is only concerned with military and intelligence space issues. Given preliminary stories on their recommendations, the Allard Commission does little to dissuade this view that civil space is a secondary interest of the Council. However, civil and commercial issues are routinely addressed in NSC deliberations and agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the departments of Commerce and Transportation are at the table when necessary and appropriate. The Policy Coordination Committee for Space has played a significant role in a broad range of civil aeronautics and space issues, including the development of the Vision for Space Exploration.
The NSC’s stewardship of the national space agenda has the collateral benefit of raising the visibility of space within the White House. They have had no problems in gaining the participation of senior department and agency principals for policy deliberations and NSC senior leadership briefs, the president several times a week. It is doubtful that the proposed NASC will have equivalent senior participation or access to the Oval Office.
Presidential policies involving space are now promulgated through a process managed by the NSC and result in Presidential Decision Directives and National Security Presidential Directives. Even if the NASC is established, it is likely that the NSC directives will remain the decision process of choice and will unlikely cede their responsibilities for space management.
The transition team should conduct an assessment of the NSC’s current and proposed structure to determine if a level playing field is provided for all federal space stakeholders and if civil and commercial issues are adequately addressed. To enhance civil participation in NSC deliberations, the team could recommend that the Space Policy Coordinating Committee be led by a civilian instead of the standard military detailee. Options for additional civilian participation include the creation of a Presidential Space Advisory Board. Previous congressional criticism regarding transparency and secrecy of the NSC policy process also needs to be addressed and resolved.
If a decision is made to establish the NASC, turf fights with the NSC are inevitable. The transition team must consider how policy and program overlaps between the organizations will be minimized. There is much to be said for establishing a structure that encourages greater collaboration between the civil, commercial and national security sectors rather than maintaining separate entities. Creating yet another organization also will impact the availability of already over-scheduled principals and will lead to the competition for scarce financial and human resources to conduct day-to-day affairs.
How space fares in the new administration will ultimately depend upon the personalities of the individuals appointed to fill senior management positions. Their leadership abilities, passion for space, and their relationship with the president are critical. The appointment of these individuals deserves attention much earlier in the process than has been the case in previous administrations, especially regarding civil space positions.
No policy process is perfect, but there are a host of issues that will require efficient interagency collaboration the immediate attention of the new president. On the civil side there are pressing issues related to the launch gap, export control, commercial development and the status of the Vision for Space Exploration. The Allard Commission (and the previous Rumsfeld Commission) documented a plethora of issues and problems confronting the national security space and intelligence communities. It is clear that space activities are vital elements of the global infrastructure and economy. Orbiting assets play a critical role in our daily lives and will only expand in the future. Our dependence on the aerospace sector and recent examples of vulnerabilities of space systems mandates that aeronautics and space be more efficiently managed and become a top national security priority for the new president.
Alan Ladwig is the manager of space systems for WBB Consulting and a former associate administrator for policy and plans at NASA headquarters.