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In a somewhat vague op-ed today, two Trump space policy advisers, former Congressman Robert Walker and University of California-Irvine professor Peter Navarro, recommend the re-establishment of the National Space Council to coordinate the U.S.’s civilian space effort.
Despite its importance in our economic and security calculations, space policy is uncoordinated within the federal government. A Trump administration would end the lack of proper coordination by reinstituting a national space policy council headed by the vice president. The mission of this council would be to assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests. Key goals would be to would create lower costs through greater efficiencies. As just one example, a Trump administration will insist that space products developed for one sector, but applicable to another, be fully shared.
Here, it makes little sense for numerous launch vehicles to be developed at taxpayer cost, all with essentially the same technology and payload capacity. Coordinated policy would end such duplication of effort and quickly determine where there are private sector solutions that do not necessarily require government investment. [emphasis mine]
This analysis of the op-ed at SpacePolicyOnline.com gives some history of the National Space Council, as well as range of opinions about its usefulness.
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.”
I however want to focus on the highlighted text above from the op-ed. This language appears to suggest that these advisers do not think it efficient for NASA to buy rockets and spacecraft from competing private companies, as it is doing with its cargo and crew ferries to ISS. If so, their advice will mean that a Trump administration will eliminate the competition that has been so successful in the past decade in lowering NASA’S costs and getting so much more done.
Yet, in the very next paragraphs Walker and Navarro say this:
Public-private partnerships should be the foundation of our space efforts. Such partnerships offer not only the benefit of reduced costs, but the benefit of partners capable of thinking outside of bureaucratic structures and regulations.
Vibrant companies such as Orbital ATK and SpaceX are working with NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Other companies such as Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon, Sierra Nevada, and United Launch Alliance are developing systems to carry astronauts to the ISS and beyond. Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are leading the way on space tourism.
So, what are these two Trump advisers really proposing? I think this op-ed is delicately proposing that NASA stop wasting its money building SLS/Orion and instead focus its effort in buying products from the private sector. They are being delicate about this because they know that there are a lot of powerful companies and politicians who support SLS/Orion because of the money it pours into both these companies and congressional districts. By being somewhat vague they avoid giving these companies and politicians any ammunition to attack these proposals, while simultaneously giving the Washington insider world a hint on what Trump intends to do.
Their proposal to re-instate the National Space Council is also part of this political game. Following the 1970s the council was never really very influential, even when it was operating fully. Since Bush Jr. administration it has essentially been moribund, existing in law but not in fact. By proposing the re-creation of this council, including the possibility of appointments to such a council by Trump, the op-ed writers put forth a nice political plum that might keep happy and quiet a number of politicians who might otherwise oppose a Trump policy that kills SLS.
One more note. I myself have been contacted by members of the Trump team. It appears they want my advice also.