President Trump signs the new 2017 NASA Authorization bill. Is a new version of the National Space Council in the works?
News reports indicate that some version of a national space council (with Vice-President Mike Pence as chair) might be established. For some, the idea of a White House-level committee designed to monitor the nation’s space program may seem like a new idea, but in fact, it originated at the dawn of our civil space program. The purpose of a space council is to provide executive oversight of major space programs, both to ease possible obstructions that might arise during execution of a program and to assist in coordinating contributions from different entities participating in a national effort.
Different space councils have taken a variety of forms over the past 60 years, ranging from being intimately involved in the creation and implementation of policy to virtual non-existence. The most famous incarnation of the concept was the National Space Council under President George H.W. Bush, who conceived an ambitious plan of human exploration of the Moon and Mars. Reports detailing the announcement of that major initiative and its subsequent fate make for doleful reading, but in order to understand both the strengths and weaknesses of a space council, this story and the events leading up to it need to be retold.
The late 1980s was a depressing time for America’s space program. Following the loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986, there was an extended pause in human spaceflight – a shadow had been cast on the idea that access to space had become “routine.” More significantly, the then-next NASA program (Space Station Freedom) was caught in an endless loop of design and revision; not a single piece of station hardware had been launched by the end of that decade. Following more than a year of work, including public hearings and getting input from a wide variety of experts, an ambitious report on future space activities from a Presidential Commission (The National Commission on Space, which included luminaries such as Neil Armstrong) was released to near-universal indifference. Yet within NASA, teams of engineers and scientists had devised detailed plans for a human return to the Moon, as well as first-order studies of possible architectures for a follow-on mission to Mars.
In January of 1989, as the last phases of the Cold War were being playing out and Soviet influence and power were rapidly declining, President George H.W. Bush began his administration. The defense build-up of the Reagan years had created an American technological juggernaut of unsurpassed power and excellence. An unanswered question at the time was, “What is to become of this capability?” The United States was the most powerful country in the world, yet absent the imminent threat of a Soviet Union, such capability would likely dissipate. How then could this technological base – a national industrial and human capital infrastructure of immense power and capability and a major contributor to national wealth and innovation – be maintained, if not at its current level, then at least at levels high enough to be resurrected in times of some future national need or emergency?
One answer was to channel these capabilities toward other productive endeavors, ones that required high technology, large industrial capacity, and human capital working in an intellectually challenging environment. Although never so articulated by the Bush administration, it is my belief that it was decided that those requirements could be met by using some of these Cold War capabilities for the civil space program. This transfer of effort would accomplish several goals: we would maintain our technical innovative edge (a capability necessary for future conflicts and one that also contributed to our national wealth) and re-invigorate the moribund space program by adopting a challenging – yet reachable – set of goals. On July 20, 1989, President G.H.W. Bush stood on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum and announced the “Space Exploration Initiative” (SEI). It called for a human return to the Moon (“this time, to stay”) and a human mission to Mars. No timelines or detailed plans were produced for these journeys; instead, the SEI was laid out as a national strategic direction for the manned civil space program following the completion of the then-planned Space Station Freedom.
The subsequent fate of the SEI does not concern us here, but I note the role of the Space Council in the conception and execution of this major Presidential initiative. The Council conceived the SEI on the well-intentioned grounds of setting a challenging goal for the space program, one that would deliver significant benefits in technology development and also have enormous inspirational power. Once adopted and announced by the President, they carefully monitored NASA’s reactions and implementations of the SEI, noting where it fell short and taking appropriate actions, including eventually recommending the replacement of the Administrator. This was an entirely appropriate and justified set of actions and the subsequent Aldridge Commission carefully considered this example in the formulation of their report.
After a decade and a half of agency confusion, a second Shuttle disaster – the loss of the Shuttle Columbia in February 2003 – initiated a yearlong White House review of the direction of the U.S. space program. Once again, a return to the Moon followed by a human Mars mission was the direction selected, but this time, circumstances were different. The construction of a revised version of Space Station (the International Space Station, ISS) had been initiated and was progressing well. Many still fantasized about a human Mars mission, but the cognizant recognized that such a goal was beyond the fiscal and technical capabilities of the agency. On the other hand, as a result of two robotic missions flown in the 1990s (Clementine and Lunar Prospector), and in contrast to earlier SEI days, by 2004 we knew that the Moon’s poles contained both the material (e.g., water ice) and energy (e.g., near-permanent sunlight) resources needed to establish a sustained human presence there. Finally, unlike the previous SEI (and significant for its early fate), the new initiative had been briefed and found support from Congress, both houses of which were controlled by the President’s own party.
The goals of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) announced by President George W. Bush in January 2004 were the Moon (with an emphasis on developing and using its resources) and eventually, Mars. The President also announced that a commission would be convened to make recommendations on how the VSE would be implemented. This group was charged to consider the “Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy” and was chaired by former Secretary of the Air Force Pete Aldridge. In its report issued in mid-2004, one of its notable recommendations was to resurrect the Space Council.
This recommendation drew some criticism, in part because of the track record of previous space councils. But as a member of the Aldridge Commission, I can attest to my own motivations for supporting the idea. I was concerned (rightly, as it turned out) that without it, the agency would follow its own direction and inclinations, rather than the stated policy outlined by President Bush in his VSE speech. A sizeable contingent within NASA opposed a return to the Moon, favoring instead an Apollo-style Mars mission, and they set about to “slow roll” the lunar part of the Vision. To give but one example of this, a workshop was held in the spring of 2006 to consider exactly why we were going to the Moon, despite the fact that the mission of lunar return had been clearly stated in the 2004 announcement of the VSE (“…we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”). The Mars lobby within NASA continually attempted to demote and minimize lunar activities in the years that the VSE was in force (they were more concerned with an “exit strategy” for the Moon than they were in getting there). They succeeded in their quest when President Obama deleted the Moon from the NASA exploration plan in 2010 and replaced it with (essentially) nothing.
So what would a space council do? Ideally, this White House-level body would provide executive oversight of NASA by monitoring how it implements policy objectives and be ready to make needed course corrections early, when they are least painful and most efficacious. Had the Aldridge Commission recommendation on establishing the space council been adopted, that body could have reminded NASA exactly why the Moon was on the critical path, how and where its chosen implementation of the VSE was wanting and where it could be adjusted, and have wielded the political force necessary to assure compliance with those directives. With a multitude of important pressing issues, no President can be expected to constantly monitor NASA to assure that his directives are understood and carried out. A space council, supported by a professional staff with technical backgrounds, fiscal knowledge and executive experience, could monitor the progress of a Presidential initiative to assure that course corrections are applied in a timely, efficient manner.
Currently, there is no mechanism to provide this kind of oversight. NASA is overseen by Congressional committees that don’t always have the expertise necessary to judge agency technical decisions or compliance with directives. They also get direction from the Office of Management and Budget, likewise limited in time and personnel (NASA is a relatively small agency in a very large federal government). A suggestion that the National Research Council (NRC) could provide such oversight is misguided – their process for generating reports is somewhat arbitrary and parochial. NRC reports make excellent doorstops but do not carry any executive weight (their last report on human spaceflight has been totally ignored by NASA). In contrast to some opinions, the goal of having a space council is not to “micromanage” the tactical implementation of an architecture, or to “second guess” routine management decisions. A White House space council operates on a higher level, assuring that strategic intentions are being adequately addressed and managed. The agency’s past performance on major initiatives has repeatedly shown that such supervision is necessary.
The creation of a space council is no guarantee of good management and programmatic excellence. But the tendency toward mission creep and institutional stasis is a natural feature of bureaucracies. The Pentagon learned this lesson long ago and its Defense Science Board carefully monitors both requirements and products for major programs. While not a perfect system (waste, fraud and abuse still occur, even with the most carefully monitored programs), having outside technical oversight works to assure course correction in an environment prone to groupthink and mission drift. NASA needs competent external oversight in order to fight both.