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Trump Would Reinstate White House Space Council - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2016
Updated: 22-Oct-2016 12:31 PM

UPDATED October 22, 2016 to reflect the fact that Trump no longer plans to visit Kennedy Space Center next week, as reported by Florida Today.

In an op-ed published in Space News on October 19, two advisers to Donald Trump's presidential campaign laid out the broad strokes of what a Trump space policy would look like.  Trump himself reportedly had planned to visit NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida next week as the campaign enters its final phase.  Florida is one of the battleground states that each candidate especially wants to win.  Florida Today reported on October 22, however, that those plans have changed.

The op-ed was penned by former Congressman Bob Walker and University of California-Irvine professor Peter Navarro.   Walker was a Pennsylvania Congressman for 20 years and is now Executive Chairman of one of the top lobbying firms in Washington, Wexler|Walker.  Earlier he was advising Ohio Gov. John Kasich's presidential campaign on space issues, writing an essay in response to questions posed by Aerospace America.

While in Congress, Walker served as chairman of what is now the House Science, Space and Technology Committee when Republicans took over the House in 1995 and was one of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's inner circle.  Both men are ardent space program supporters.  Gingrich also is associated with the Trump campaign.

An op-ed in a trade publication is not the same as a statement from the candidate himself.  Florida Today had reported that Trump was planning to visit KSC on October 24 and participate in an industry roundtable.  However, it updated its report on October 22 saying that he would not visit the Space Coast after all because there was no suitable indoor venue and outdoor venues "present security concerns." The event would have been reminiscent of Gingrich's own presidential campaign in 2012 when he held an industry roundtable and made a major speech in Cocoa, FL (near KSC) laying out plans for a Moon base.

A key element espoused by Walker and Navarro in the Space News op-ed is reinstating the White House National Space Council, chaired by the Vice President.

The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act created NASA to conduct U.S. civil space activities and assigned military space efforts to DOD.  It established a White House National Aeronautics and Space Council to coordinate those activities.  Originally the President was to chair the council, but that was quickly changed to the Vice President and it operated through the first Nixon term.  Nixon abolished the Council in 1973, however, and a variety of other mechanisms were used thereafter to coordinate government space activities and provide advice to the President. 

Following the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy, Congress became so dissatisfied with how the White House was making space policy decisions, however, especially the length of time and lack of transparency, that it recreated a National Space Council (without the aeronautics component) in the 1989 NASA Authorization Act.  President George H.W. Bush signed an Executive Order shortly after taking office formally establishing it as part of his Executive Office of the President.  Chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, it had an often fractious relationship with NASA.  Mark Albrecht, who served as Executive Director for most of the Bush Administration, wrote a book with an insider's view of what transpired during those years.

Subsequent Presidents have chosen not to staff or fund the Council, although it still exists in law. Currently, national security space policy resides within the White House National Security Council and civil space policy is overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the White House Office of Management and Budget playing a major role as well.

Opinions in the space policy community about the value of such a Council run the gamut.  Opponents argue it is just one more White House entity that can say "no" to any idea, but without the clout to say "yes" and make something happen.  Supporters insist that a top-level mechanism is needed not only to effectively coordinate government civil and national security space programs, but to bring in the commercial sector and develop a holistic approach to space.

Walker and Navarro clearly share the latter opinion.  They say the Council would "end the lack of proper coordination" and "assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests."

The op-ed offers few specifics, other than to praise private sector launch vehicle development efforts and question the need for the government to duplicate such capabilities.  Overall it is a rallying cry for the need to have a strong space program based on classic arguments that it will spur invention, innovation, and economic growth and appeal to aspirational and inspirational needs:  "Americans seem to know intuitively that the destiny of a free people lies in the stars.  Donald Trump fully agrees."

Neither Trump nor his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton have space policies posted on their campaign websites.  Both the Republican and Democratic party platforms mention space activities, but only briefly.  Trump has made a number of statements in response to questions about the space program during the campaign, but they often are vague and sometimes conflict.  Clinton also has responded to questions about space, but she is invariably enthusiastic and often tells the story of how she wanted to be an astronaut herself, but at the time, females were not allowed in the astronaut corps.


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