Last month, President Trump signed an executive order (and gave a somewhat baffling speech) that reinstated the National Space Council, with Vice President Mike Pence at its head. But the question is what does this mean for NASA, commercial spaceflight companies, and missions to Mars? Let’s unpack this a little.
President Trump reinstates the National Space Council, flanked by Astronauts Dave Wolf and Buzz Aldrin (Source: White House)
It’s been clear for awhile that the president considers NASA and the American space program a feather in his proverbial cap. He’s stated that Americans should be leaders in exploring space, even asking NASA to look into whether it was feasible to put astronauts on the first test launch of the massive SLS rocket. Clearly, Trump was interested in NASA launching astronauts within his first term. The organization decided this wasn’t feasible, but the fact is, the current administration has expressed an abiding interest in NASA and space.
The administration decided that, rather allowing disparate groups to decide American space policy, they needed an umbrella council to cover military, civil, and commercial space policy. It’s an interesting notion, to be sure. It’s easy for anyone concerned with science to label pretty much everything this administration does as a Bad Idea, but that’s not necessarily the case here. Having one voice for all of American space policy could be a very good thing.
Liftoff of Orion’s test flight on December 5, 2014 (Source: NASA/Kennedy)
NASA’s been in a difficult position for most of its existence when it comes to budgets and changing administration and Congressional priorities. Programs are greenlit then canceled; lofty goals are outlined, but not fully funded. The organization is required to keep itself flexible in order to accommodate these changing moods, but that comes at a very high cost and has generally terrible results when it comes to forward progress. Having one organization deciding policy and spaceflight goals could temper some of this pressure. It wouldn’t insulate NASA completely, but it could provide clear and decisive direction that is currently lacking.
Additionally, Vice President Pence’s comments make him (and the Council as a consequence) seem more amenable to commercial space partnerships than Congress has been in the past. In the past, Congress has been reluctant to approve partnership with commercial space companies in order to explore space. Get us to the ISS? Sure. But space exploration has always been done by NASA; sure, NASA contracts with companies to build its vehicles (Boeing is constructing the Orion capsule, for example), but NASA bears the brunt of development costs. NASA needs to be able to contract with commercial space companies that have developed and tested their own tech, without NASA funds supporting them. Yes, they can have contracts in place that ensure them business with NASA (indeed, that’s how SpaceX succeeded), but NASA wouldn’t be paying for the tech development.
If the Space Council is open to partnering with companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin for the Moon, Mars, and beyond, it could be huge. The fact is that it’s going to be very difficult for NASA to make it to the red planet without serious reliance on commercial space companies. Their massive rocket, the SLS (Space Launch System), is over budget and behind schedule. Once it finally launches, in 2019, it’s only budgeted for one launch per year. That schedule will not get us very far into space and the timeline would likely be drawn out. Encouraging partnership with commercial companies to explore space could be crucial to making sure we actually go beyond the Moon.
Reusable tech like the first stage SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is crucial to space exploration. (Source: SpaceX)
However, the Space Council could also be terrible. As I mentioned there’s a component besides NASA and commercial interests that the Space Council is responsible for: military.
While signatories of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty are committed to the “peaceful exploration and use of outer space,” there’s nothing expressly prohibiting the militarization of space (beyond the placement of nuclear weapons) in the document. The Council’s staff isn’t encouraging in this regard; it’s made up of people from the National Security Council, instead of science and technology departments as one would hope and expect.
Still, there’s definitely more reasons to hope than despair when it comes to the Space Council . Policy for the Council hasn’t been set yet; it’s going to take time for that to be set. All we can glean thus far are tidbits that indicate what members are thinking. It’s certainly comforting to see that Pence appears to be embracing the contributions and potential of commercial space; it’s a necessary step to space exploration.
Top photo by NASA
Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor and giant space/sci-fi geek.