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The first meeting of the National Space Council

The first meeting of the National Space Council just wrapped up. You can see highlights here. I have several thoughts.

The entire event was very carefully staged, with the planned outcomes determined beforehand. The three panels of speakers were organized to match up with the three main actions the council intended to pursue, with the questions from the various high level Trump cabinet members clearly arranged to line up with each panel. Moreover, the fact that all these panel members were there and participating in this staged event suggests that Trump himself is directly interested, and insisted they do so.

The first action was a decision to rework the country’s overall space policy, including its future goals for exploring the solar system. This action item was linked with statements by officials from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Orbital ATK, and was clearly intended to placate their desire to keep what they all called “sustained” and “reliable” funding. It was also clearly linked to Pence’s opening remarks, which insisted that the U.S. should return to the Moon, permanently, and use that as a jumping off point for exploring Mars and the rest of the solar system.

The second action was a commitment to review, in the next 45 days, the entire regulatory bureaucracy that private companies must face. This was linked to the testimony from officials from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada.

The third action was a focus on the military and national security aspects of space, focused on the development of a “space strategic framework” that will apparently link the military needs with the growing commercial space industry. This framework has been under development for several months. The council actually spent the most time questioning the national security witnesses on this issue. This focus also aligns with the main interest in space held by Trump’s nominee for NASA administrator, Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma). Interestingly, Bridenstine was in the audience, but was given no speaking opportunity, unlike the NASA acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, who Pence specifically provided a moment to speak.

Overall, this meeting indicates that the Trump administration is likely not going to do much to drain the swamp that presently dominates our space effort. Trump’s interest in reducing regulation remains strong, but it also appears he and his administration is also strongly committed to continuing the crony capitalism that is wasting literally billions of dollars in space and helping to put the nation into unrecoverable debt.

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  • I have revised the post to link to this C-Span video.

  • D Ray

    Too bad NASA doesn’t focus on it’s core competencies; deep space robot exploration and demonstration of new technologies.

  • Edward

    I still have some hope for the future of space. Although Trump may not intend to do much to drain the swamp that presently dominates our space effort, it is still possible that his actions will do more to encourage commercial space than not. But then, why would we expect Trump to drain the swamp in our space effort when he has failed to begin draining the swamp in the rest of Washington?

    The second action that Robert mentioned is encouraging. The first action may be there just to placate the old guard of the space age, but it is still possible for the future projects to be more open to competitive bid than in the past.

    The third action is also encouraging, as it acknowledges the importance of the new attitude toward commercial space as the future of our space expansion and exploration. The opening of national security launches from being sole sourced to ULA is an encouraging factor, and may spread to boondoggles such as the Deep Space Gateway. If that has to be built, then let it be built for minimum cost, not maximum cost.

    I fear that Trump will be pressured to continue SLS, because it is Congress’s baby, and they may still feel protective. Trump may also feel that he should stick with the sure thing (SLS) rather than gamble on development of competing hardware. Either of these would be a bad sign because he would not be draining the swamp. Taking a gamble on new hardware has been the hallmark of presidential goals in space. President Kennedy even listed the technologies that would have to be developed in order to go to the Moon. What a gamble that was.

    However, it would be better if Trump jumped onto the gamble bandwagon and announced that commercial systems would compete with SLS and that construction and development of DSG hardware would also be competitive, just as CRS and CCDev were. At worst, just as with CRS and CCDev, we could build two DSGs, one to orbit the Moon and one to replace ISS. Part of ISS is now considered to be a US national lab, and losing it without a replacement would lose the country of that resource.

    If DSG is a place without a mission, then it does not give SLS a real mission to fulfill. For DSG to work as a national goal, then Trump will have to enumerate its usefulness for our expansion into the rest of the solar system. He will have to give DSG its own important goal to fulfill. Without such a goal, then DSG is just another part of the swamp.

    Listening to the panel discussions, I came across an interesting question:
    Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce asked a disturbing question, wondering how the US gets a benefit when another country rents our services, such as a Dream Chaser, in order to make his own product. He is concerned that the foreigners, not the US, will get the better benefit from their own innovation. This is the same kind of thinking that limits the desirability of using the ISS. Is the Secretary of Commerce equally concerned when US shipping companies (e.g. trucks and trains) move foreign built products? Somehow he thinks of space launch companies as being different than our Earthbound companies.

    Robert wrote: “The entire event was very carefully staged, with the planned outcomes determined beforehand.

    They certainly seemed to have several of their recommendations written in advance, but they did have a recommendation for the commercial space enterprise companies’ request for deregulation that they needed to research and write. “Let’s have something to review for our next council meeting. … Think urgency.” The emphasis on getting this done urgently is encouraging.

    Please allow me to title the next section of this comment:

    Paul Spudis wrote, “Regrettably, strategic confusion currently abounds in the American civil space program.” What we really need is an overall national goal and a clear strategy to fulfill it. We do not need just one project but a strategy to achieve that goal that a variety of projects can fulfill.

    I would like to hear a national goal such as, “To expand human civilization throughout the solar system.”

    This is not a goal that can be achieved in one president’s time in office, but it is a goal that the American public can get behind and get excited about, and it does not limit us to government-led efforts or commercial efforts. It is a goal that will require decades and many different projects to complete.

    A strategy may look like: establish a manned or unmanned base on the Moon to mine water as rocket propellant and to mine other materials as vital resources; establish a cislunar refueling station to fuel interplanetary spacecraft; amend the Space Treaty for easier commercial use of space; establish cislunar and low Earth orbit manufacturing facilities; establish manned communities on the Moon and Mars; explore additional asteroids and planetary Moons for potential as future communities.

    I heard a few recommendations that sounded similar to some of these, but without a stated goal, the recommendations do not sound like a clear strategy, just a bunch of wishy washy words that will soon be forgotten.

    As panelist Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin pointed out, in the first question to her, “[space] makes our lives better.” We should make sure to foster that kind of use of space.

    Having a national goal and strategy will provide the focus that Dennis Muilenburg recommended in the first question posed to him. A goal gives the long term view that Muilenberg said would help direct companies in their planning and operations. NASA, as overseen by the National Space Council, should become the nation’s leader in focusing our efforts in completing the national goal while the many companies that get involved in space do their own thing.

    Finally, watching the presentation, I discovered that the Vice President seems to have his own theme “Hail Columbia,” just as the president has “Hail to the Chief.” At least I learned something in two and a half hours.

  • ken anthony

    I wonder why the secretaries don’t educate themselves a bit more before speaking? No rocking of boats seems the order of the day.

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