Pace USRA speech
Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, described the administration's new approach to a human return to the moon as a "strategy of speed leading towards sustainability" in an April 23 speech. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

WASHINGTON — The top staff member of the National Space Council resigned last week as the council’s future in coordinating space policy remains uncertain.

In a Dec. 31 statement, Scott Pace announced he was resigning as executive secretary of the National Space Council to return to George Washington University, where he had served as director of its Space Policy Institute. Pace left the university in July 2017 to lead the day-to-day operations of the council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.

Pace, in a statement, said it was the “honor of a lifetime” to be the council’s executive secretary. “I am so proud of the team here and the work we’ve done to set a foundation for continued progress and advancement in the civil, commercial and national space sectors. I look forward to my return to the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and to educating future space leaders.”

The White House selected Pace a few weeks after formally reconstituting the council, which had been dormant since the administration of President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. At the time there was considerable skepticism about whether the council would be useful, particularly given the experience from that earlier version of the council when the White House and NASA were at odds regarding the Space Exploration Initiative.

A steady stream of space policies and other documents, including an updated National Space Policy released at the council’s most recent meeting Dec. 9, won over much of the space community. However, it remains unclear if the incoming Biden administration, which has been largely silent on space policy, will retain the council.

Some organizations are calling on the new administration to retain the council. The Secure World Foundation, in a report published in December on its recommendations for space policy in the next administration, said that the National Space Council “has largely been successful in establishing an efficient process for discussing, debating, and finalizing national space policy.” The council, it noted also improved “the political priority and public visibility” of space policy.

“We think the National Space Council has been useful in increase both the public and the interagency visibility of space policy and space policy decision-making,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the foundation. “We encourage the Biden administration to continue the National Space Council as the main body for developing and coordinating space policy.”

The Secure World Foundation did recommend some changes to how the council and its Users’ Advisory Group, a separate committee that provides advice to the council, should operate. The foundation’s report noted that the council’s public meetings “are more staged events than serious discussions of space policy,” which it argued can be counterproductive to building up public interest in the subject. It also recommended adding members to the Users’ Advisory Group who are actual users of space applications.

Pace’s departure came a day after the National Space Council released its latest policy, a national strategy for planetary protection. That strategy directed various government agencies to work on new assessments to protect other worlds from terrestrial biological contamination and vice versa.

An administration official, speaking on background about that strategy, noted that the Office of Science and Technology Policy will lead much of that work, in coordination with other agencies. The official added that the strategy was an example of the role the council played in bringing together various agencies on an issue that did not neatly fall within the scope of a single agency.

“These are crosscutting issues that, in the normal agency stovepipes, would not get dealt with,” the official said, comparing the work on planetary protection to other activity on topics ranging from space weather to cybersecurity.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...