Ellis UAG AIAA Space
James Ellis, chairman of the Users' Advisory Group of the National Space Council, discusses the status of the group and its plans during a "listening session" at the AIAA Space Forum Sept. 17. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

ORLANDO — Three months after its inaugural meeting, the advisory group supporting the National Space Council is working to organize itself and identify topics for study while preparing for its next full meeting.

During a series of “listening sessions” here Sept. 17 as part of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum, members of the Users’ Advisory Group (UAG) of the council, including chairman James Ellis, said they’ve been focused on organizational issues since their first meeting June 19.

“The organizational dynamics are largely complete and we’re now beginning to identify those areas where we want to contribute going forward,” said Ellis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former head of Strategic Command.

At the first UAG meeting, the members announced the formation of six subcommittees on topics ranging from exploration and discovery to national security space to education and outreach. Two of those subcommittees have already met, Ellis said.

“The committees have been established. They’ve identified a number of topics that they could potentially pursue,” he said, without elaborating on those topics. That planning, he added, has also included research on previous studies on topics of interest by other organizations to avoid any duplication of effort.

The listening sessions at this conference, which included one set aside for young professionals and another for AIAA corporate members, are the first of several Ellis said UAG plans to carry out at various events to solicit input on topics they should pursue. Additional sessions are planned for the International Astronautical Congress in Germany in early October, the Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, in late October, and the Summit on Space Innovations at Georgia Tech in Atlanta in mid-November.

The full UAG, which Ellis said intends to meet three to four times a year, is also preparing for its second meeting. He said a notice about the next meeting, tentatively scheduled for some time in November, should be published in the Federal Register in the next week or two.

At the AIAA conference listening sessions, the UAG members fielded questions on topics ranging from space acquisition reform to orbital debris to the utility of terraforming Mars. They also faced criticism for a lack of scientists in the group, which is heavy with business executives, former astronauts, and political figures.

Ellis said the UAG’s membership was limited by a requirement it have no more than 30 members. “It was not fully intended to represent all of membership of the space community. It can’t,” he said, arguing the group’s outreach efforts are intended in part to address that. “We’ve very sensitive to this.”

Mary Lynne Dittmar, a UAG member who is also president and chief executive of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, noted she will take advantage of her membership on the executive committee of the Space Studies Board to bring in scientific expertise. “It doesn’t quite check the box,” she said, “but it does provide an additional conduit.”

David Thompson, the recently retired president and chief executive of Orbital ATK who also serves on the UAG, said another possibility is a pair of one-day workshops organized by the UAG and/or the National Academies, one on each coast, “to really try and get the thought leaders from the sciences, who benefit from the human exploration initiative, together with the people who are going to design and build that.”

Ellis, responding to a question from a young professional who said he was unfamiliar with the UAG, likened the advisory group to a startup. “We’re in the first round of funding,” he said. “We’re now out there, engaged in reviewing the issues. We believe, I believe, that outreach is an important part of that.”

That includes the need for broader outreach beyond the aerospace community, he added, on the importance of space. “We’re going to need to continue to tell the story of why this is something we need to do.”

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...