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Biden Administration officials have suggested that the National Space Council, under Vice President Harris’s leadership, won’t have the same “big displays” as those by the council under Vice President Mike Pence, like this December 2020 meeting under the Saturn V on display at the Kennedy Space Center. (credit: White House)

Retaining both space policies and processes

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When the Biden Administration took office in January, some in the space community were concerned about the future of initiatives started by the Trump Administration. Within a matter of weeks, though, the White House affirmed its support for both the US Space Force (which would have required an act of Congress to undo in any case) as well as NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program.

Less certain was the future of the National Space Council. The Trump Administration revived the council in 2017 after a hiatus of nearly a quarter century. The Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama Administrations all declined to use the council, despite pushes from some in the space community to use it for interagency coordination. They relied on the National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy to handle space policy issues.

“The Vice President will be engaging stakeholders, engaging members of that council, all along the way,” the official said. “And then when we think it is useful to have the first full meeting we’ll have the first full meeting.”

The Biden Administration said little about the council in its first weeks in office. A policy memo in early February even suggested the council would not be active, as it noted that “National Security Memoranda that, along with National Security Study Memoranda, shall replace National Security Presidential Memoranda and Space Policy Directives as instruments for communicating Presidential decisions about national security policies of the United States.” Since the National Space Council developed Space Policy Directives, the lack of such directives suggested the lack of a council.

In late March, though, the White House announced it would continue the National Space Council after all. The space council “provides an opportunity to generate national space policy strategies, synchronize on America’s space activities, at a time of unprecedented activity,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

The announcement was a relief to advocates of the council in the space community, even if the White House said little more about the council. “A whole-of-government approach through a body such as the space council, with clear objectives stemming from the White House and informed by the broader community, will provide the necessary forum to ensure the continued coordination of space policy,” said Andrew Allen, acting president and chief executive of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.

It was not, though, until the beginning of May that the White House said more about its plans for the space council. “As I've said before: In America, when we shoot for the moon, we plant our flag on it. I am honored to lead our National Space Council,” Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted.

That was the extent of her public comments on the council, but senior administration officials, speaking on background with reporters, offered a few more details. “Under the Vice President's leadership of the National Space Council, as specified in the statute setting it up, the council will assist the president in generating national space policies and strategies and in synchronizing American civil, commercial, and national security space activities,” one official said in the call (which was held in the middle of the day on a Saturday, for reasons the White House did not disclose.)

While the Vice President chairs the council, it’s run on a day-to-day basis by an executive secretary. The process to hire someone to fill that role is “well underway,” an official said, but didn’t give a schedule for hiring that person.

Officials also didn’t estimate when the council would meet for the first time. “The Vice President will be engaging stakeholders, engaging members of that council, all along the way,” the official said. “And then when we think it is useful to have the first full meeting we’ll have the first full meeting.”

Those meetings will cover a mix of existing and new topics, officials suggested. Among those “core priorities” are space’s role in national security, science and technology development, and the space industry’s contribution to US economic growth.

“I would just want to add that the Vice President also intends to put her own personal stamp on the council,” the official added, pursuing issues of particular reinterest to her. Those include “sustainable development” of commercial space activities, development of norms and behaviors for peaceful space activities, and working with allies on space exploration. Other priorities by Harris include climate change, STEM education, diversity, and cybersecurity.

“I think her approach to this is just going to be to get the job done, and use this to lead our space policy, and not really focus perhaps as much on big displays,” an official said.

Officials said little else about what the space council would do, or how it would do it. They suggested, though, that the council would operate in public differently from the Trump Administration, which held a number of public council meetings. Those meetings, though, features little in the way of debate or deliberation, but rather updates from various agencies about their progress (“book reports,” one industry source called them) and an opportunity for Vice President Mike Pence or others to make announcements. Pence, for example, used the March 2019 council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, to announce the 2024 goal for returning humans to the Moon.

“I'll just say, without drawing too much of a contrast, I think her approach to this is just going to be to get the job done, and use this to lead our space policy, and not really focus perhaps as much on big displays,” an official said of how Harris wound run the council.

The embrace of the National Space Council by the new administration, though, is a victory for many in the space industry, who saw it as an effective tool for policy coordination and raising the profile of the field in the Trump Administration. That was remarkable after decades of being sidelined and dismissed as a unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

“Space councils come and go,” Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council during the Trump Administration, said during a webinar in February, when the fate of the council was still uncertain. “They are a very useful tool, in my opinion, if a president wants one and they want to put the effort into it.”

Also important, he said at a separate event, was the interest Pence had in leading the council. “I couldn’t have done what I did without the Vice President being personally engaged,” Pace said of Pence.

Harris doesn’t have much of a track record yet, either as Vice President or her relatively brief time in the Senate, to determine what her level of interest in, or engagement with, the council will be. In the background call, officials pointed out some of the activities of the administration in its first 100 days related to space, such as the endorsement of the Artemis program and the Space Force.

“The President and Vice President both have been personally engaged,” an official said. The examples that official cited for Harris, though, were calls to the International Space Station to speak with astronauts Victor Glover, Kate Rubins, and Shannon Walker. Last week, she swore in Bill Nelson as the new administrator of NASA. “Her team has briefed her a number of times on space,” the official said.

Retaining the National Space Council does fit into an early theme of the Biden Administration about space, one of continuity in major space programs, rather than stops-and-starts and changes of direction. Nelson made a similar argument in his confirmation hearing last month to be NASA administrator. “The space program needs constancy of purpose,” he said then (see “A message of continuity from NASA’s next administrator”, The Space Review, April 26, 2021).

The council demonstrated it could be an effective tool under the Trump Administration by advancing a range of space policies, many of which have been retained by the Biden Administration. The question now is whether the processes can retain the same continuity as the policies.

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