Trump signing
President Donald Trump signs the NASA Transition Authorization Act of of 2017 in the Oval Office March 21. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence said March 21 that he expects the Trump administration to reestablish the National Space Council, a move that has the backing of a key member of Congress.

Pence mentioned the National Space Council at the end of a signing ceremony at the White House for the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, an event attended by members of Congress, NASA astronauts and NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

“In very short order, the president will be taking action to re-launch the National Space Council,” Pence said. “He’s asked me to chair that, as vice presidents have in the past, and we’re going to be bringing together the best and the brightest in NASA and also in the private sector.” Trump nodded as Pence spoke and said, “Right.”

Pence’s comments were the strongest indication to date that the Trump administration plans to follow through on a statement made during the campaign that it would restore the National Space Council, an interagency body that last operated in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

The Trump administration has said little about space in its first two months in office. On March 10, the office of Vice President Pence tweeted a photo of him meeting at the White House with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin “as we work to shape the space policy of our administration.” Aldrin said later that Pence didn’t offer any indications of what that policy might be, but “took note some suggestions and some offers of assistance” from him during what the former astronaut called a “very friendly, very satisfying” meeting.

At the signing ceremony for the authorization bill, President Trump offered few hints about what his administration’s space policy might be. “I’m delighted to sign this bill — it’s been a long time since a bill like this has been signed — reaffirming our national commitment to the core mission of NASA: human space exploration, space science and technology,” he said.

The bill is the first NASA authorization act to be signed into law since October 2010. The act passed the Senate by unanimous consent Feb. 17 and by a voice vote in the House March 7. The bill authorizes $19.5 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2017 and includes a broad array of policy provisions, from development of a detailed plan for NASA’s human exploration programs, with the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars, to giving NASA the ability to establish long-term medical monitoring of former astronauts.

Among those members of Congress who attended the signing ceremony was Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a member of the House Science Committee who has been active on space policy issues. Speaking a short time later at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon, he endorsed Pence’s statement about reestablishing the National Space Council.

U.S. Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.) discussed his American Space Renaissance Act during an industry breakfast at the 32nd Space Symposium in April 2016. Credit: Tom Kimmell
U.S. Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.) discussed his American Space Renaissance Act during an industry breakfast at the 32nd Space Symposium in April 2016. Credit: Tom Kimmell

“For legislators that are interested and involved in space, this gives us a tremendous amount of opportunity,” he said of the space council, by addressing the “stovepipes” that isolate civil, commercial and national security space programs.

Bridenstine said he wasn’t sure when the executive order reestablishing the National Space Council might be signed by President Trump. He thought, though, it might not come “immediately” in order to give the administration time to identify staff members that would support the office.

“The fact that the vice president is talking about it on television, during the signing of the NASA Transition Authorization Act, indicates that it’s happening. They’re serious about it,” he said of the National Space Council. “I’m thrilled about it.”

In his speech, Bridenstine highlighted several policy topics he thought the space council could be well suited to address. They included shifting space situational awareness work from the U.S. Air Force to an agency like the Federal Aviation Administration, use of commercial weather satellite data to address gaps in government systems, creating an “America first” policy for launch that encourages the development and use of domestically-developed launch vehicles, updating regulations associated with the commercial remote sensing industry, and better integrating launch activities into the national airspace system.

Many of those issues are topics that Bridenstine sought to address last year with his overarching space policy bill, the American Space Renaissance Act. While the bill did not pass, some of its provisions were incorporated into other legislation.

He said he is working on an updated version of the act, but does not plan to introduce it immediately. He introduced the original version of the bill last April at the Space Symposium, but said that he’ll use a visit to that conference next month to instead seek feedback. “We’re not going to rush it,” he said of the new version of the act, “Our target would be before the end of the year.”

That assumes Bridenstine is still in Congress by then: he remains a leading candidate to be nominated to be NASA administrator. Asked after the speech if he thought the administration was getting closer to nominating someone for the position, he responded, “I think so. I’ll leave it at that.”

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...