By Rebecca Lewis
One year into his presidency, President Donald Trump has expressed goals for his space policy that both conflict with and resemble those stated by the Obama administration with regards to the National Space Council, human exploration programs, and public-private partnerships with commercial spaceflight companies. Whether his programs succeed or not depends not only on his decision-making but also on outside forces, and the legacy of the Obama administration can attest to this.
In 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Act established NASA and mandated the creation of an aeronautics and space advisory group . The group was known as the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC) and was dedicated to decision-making on federal space policy and strategy. This organization saw many iterations over the years and was last disbanded in 1993 under the Clinton administration.
During his presidential campaign in 2008, President Barack Obama stated that he intended to re-establish the NASC . However, Obama never followed through on his stated intentions because many of his advisors saw it as unnecessary .
But in June 2017, Trump re-established the NASC and renamed it the National Space Council. He stated, “The National Space Council will be a central hub guiding space policy within the administration. And I will draw on it for advice and information and recommendations for action .”
The first meeting of the National Space Council occurred on October 5, 2017. During this meeting, the council heard from panels on the civil, commercial, and national security aspects of the American space program .
After hearing from these panels, the National Space Council formulated a recommendation to the president to focus American space programs on a return mission to the Moon in order to re-establish American leadership in human space exploration .
Importantly, a strong presence from the commercial space industry was represented on the civil and commercial panels with head executives from leading space companies, including Lockheed Martin, the Boeing Company, Orbital ATK, SpaceX, the Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Blue Origin. Such representation has not been seen on the National Space Council since 1990 under the first Bush Administration when ad-hoc committees were formed to evaluate the long-term future of NASA and to synthesize suggestions on how to execute President George Bush’s plan to return to the Moon [7,8,9].
The National Space Council has the potential to facilitate American space programs by coordinating different government departments, such as the Department of Defense, the Office of Management and Budget, and NASA, toward common goals. An example of this occurred when the NASC of 1961 came to the decision to commit to a lunar program under the Kennedy administration .
Although, even without an advising body, the Obama administration maintained a clear space policy from its inauguration. As outlined in Obama’s campaign document, “Advancing the Frontiers of Space Exploration,” this policy initially hinged on facilitating the Constellation program, a human-rated launch system meant to replace the Space Shuttle program in 2010 . Obama instituted the Review of the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in 2009 to assess the program’s status. The committee found that the program would require an additional 3 billion USD a year to complete and that it would take at least seven years to transition between the Space Shuttle and Constellation programs, during which the U.S. would be unable to launch its own astronauts to space .
Because of this report, Obama shut down the Constellation program, but maintained elements of Constellation in the next human-rated launch system program called the Space Launch System (SLS) [13,14]. He published a revised space policy in 2010 in which he planned to pursue a robotic mission to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit by 2025 called the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) .
However, Trump requested an end to funding of ARM in his 2018 fiscal year NASA budget proposal . Several months after this proposal, Trump also revised the National Space Policy with his Space Policy Directive 1, removing any mention of ARM from the policy and instead focusing American space efforts on a lunar program . Of significance is that this policy change aligned with Trump’s stated intention to use the National Space Council as a resource and to take heed of its recommendations. This indicates that the Council may be an agency with true influence under the Trump administration.
Furthermore, in his 2019 fiscal year budget proposal for NASA, Trump made specific requests for programs that would pursue “a cis-lunar strategy that establishes U.S. preeminence to, around, and on the Moon .”
At its base, the strategy includes the allocation of enough funds to the SLS and its corresponding Orion lunar capsule to keep these projects on schedule for an uncrewed test flight to the Moon in 2020 and a crewed mission in 2023. Also, the budget requests funding for the establishment of new lunar infrastructure development programs such as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, which would be a facility between the Moon and Earth meant to be used as a staging point for lunar surface and deep space exploration missions .
Although the Obama and Trump administrations conflict over the priority of space programs, both administrations have expressed support for public-private partnerships and have used or plan on using the International Space Station as a way to demonstrate this support.
For instance, under the Obama administration, the NASA Transition Act of 2010 augmented funding to the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program (C3PO) by $300 million and ensured that commercial cargo resupply services to the ISS were available by 2011 . Moreover, Obama initiated the Commercial Crew Transport initiative in which SpaceX and Boeing were selected to become certified for the transport of crew members to the ISS . This program is expected to come to fruition in late 2018 with uncrewed flight tests to the ISS in August and crewed flight demonstrations in December . These efforts were further supplemented by Obama’s request for the extension of U.S. financial support to the ISS from the original termination date of 2016 to the year 2024, which Congress passed into public law with the SPACE Act of 2015 .
Likewise, the Trump administration has proposed in its 2019 budget proposal to initiate the commercialization of low Earth orbit with a $150 million program by which the ISS will transition from funding by the U.S. and its international partners to commercial partners . If accepted by Congress, the transition would coincide with the end of U.S. financial aid to the ISS in 2025 and would allow the ISS to continue to be used for low Earth orbit research beyond the scheduled funding end date. However, this plan has received much criticism from the standpoints that commercial partners are unlikely to be ready to take over the ISS by this deadline, that the ISS is also funded by several international partners, and commercial ownership could impact the scientific objectives of the ISS .
The next few years could see the rise of another U.S. lunar program with a productive National Space Council heading American space policy, but could also mark the beginning of the end for NASA funding on the ISS and other programs.
But it is important to remember how the Obama administration ended the Constellation program because it fell behind schedule and the replacement Asteroid Redirect Mission was eliminated by Obama’s successor. In a similar way, Trump’s lunar program could suffer from lack of funding, the National Space Council could go unheard, and the ISS may remain NASA-funded if Congress disagrees with Trump’s budget proposal. Therefore, it is essential to acknowledge that although Trump has his own ambitions for space, the ultimate result of American space policy will not come entirely from his decisions.
James A. Vedda. “National Space Policy: History and Potential.” (The Aerospace Corporation: Center for Space Policy and Strategy, November 29, 2016), pg 1. http://www.aerospace.org/publications/policy-papers/national-space-council-history-and-potential/
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