Today, President Trump signed an executive order to reinstate the National Space Council, an executive agency that will be tasked with guiding US space policy during the administration. The council, typically chaired by the vice president, is one that the US has seen before; it was first in operation during the ‘60s and ‘70s and then again under the George H.W. Bush administration, before being dissolved in 1993. Now, it’s back again, and this time with Vice President Mike Pence at the helm.
“This will be Pence’s eyes and ears into our government’s actions in space.”
Other notable members of the executive branch will serve on the council as well, according to a draft of the order obtained by The Verge. Those include the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, as well as NASA’s administrator — though that positioned has yet to be filled permanently. The executive order lays out the main functions of the council, too, which revolve around making recommendations of space policy for the president and how to implement that guidance. It also calls for the creation of an advisory group, comprised of non-government workers and those in the industry to provide advice.
The council’s purview includes NASA, as well as the US Air Force and intelligence community, which rely heavily on satellites for national defense. “Basically this will be Pence’s eyes and ears into our government’s actions in space, whether it’s NASA or the Pentagon,” Phil Larson, a former space policy advisor for the Obama administration, tells The Verge.
The council's resurrection has been in the works since the campaign, when one of Trump's space advisor’s advocated for it. Pence confirmed in March he'd head the council, and a draft of the executive order to reinstate the group has been around since May, according to a report by Space News.
It's not yet clear what policy the council will implement. Two factions appear to have formed within the space community: "old space" and "new space." The "old space" group prefers the traditional way NASA has done business: the agency gives pricey contracts to government contractors, to develop vehicles that are ultimately overseen and operated by NASA. It’s how the agency is making its next monster rocket, the Space Launch System, which is meant to take astronauts into deep space and onto Mars.
As for what type of policy the council will implement, that’s still up for debate
“New space” advocates prefer a more hands-off approach, leaning on public-private partnerships. Under this model, NASA tells the private sector what service it wants and companies make pitches. This is the basic formula for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which tasks SpaceX and Boeing with building spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. These types of contracts are usually fixed-price and are often hailed for being more cost-effective ways of doing business. But NASA doesn't own the vehicles and has less oversight in development.
It's unclear which faction will win on the counsel. Pence and his team seem to support public-private partnerships, Larson says. But the attendees at today’s briefing about the council indicate old space may have an edge. The room was filled with legislators from Alabama, the state where the SLS is being developed. And representatives from most of the major private space companies were noticeably absent.
Of course, the council may just be an additional layer of bureaucracy that slows the making process — it just depends on how it’ll be used. “It could help break some of the log jams we’ve seen, instead of muddling through space policy right now,” says Larson. “But it will only work that way if space is a high priority for Pence.”