Night of the living space council

Transition season inevitably means resurrecting the national space council is back on the table.

It’s transition season, so that means the return of a White House National Space Council discussion.

The United States is dealing with a variety of space security issues, including a reliance on Russian engines, increasing threats to U.S. and allied spacecraft, orbital debris and space traffic management, and many others. Would a space council help solve those problems? Maybe. But those issues are only symptoms of a deeper set of national problems.

If we were to conduct a thorough “accident investigation” of our space program we would find four root causes that have led us to where we are: implementation, coordination, prioritization, and vision.

We have launch problems today because NASA and the national security community decided, independently, that “solving” launch was too hard. And the longer they waited, the more expensive the solution became, which encouraged more delay. We have space security issues because the national security community does not know the difference between real capabilities and wishing threats away by talking about them — or, in diplo-speak, it’s the difference between deterrence and a démarche.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

There are limits to what government organizations can do to guide our space program. As a National Security Council staffer, I had the authority to draft space policy for the President.  But the authority to implement the policy belonged to the departments and agencies.The departments and agencies implemented the policies, to varying degrees of success, but they often failed to coordinate with other departments due to their own bureaucracy or congressional committee jurisdictions.

Within all these organizations there are also “silos of excellence” inhabited by experts in policy, budget, acquisition, requirements, and operations. These experts often treat space like an assembly line — passing work along without feedback or self-correction. Even within a single department it is difficult to get anything done. During my years at the Pentagon you would have to align dozens of “yesses” to get anything done.  A single “no” would bring things to a halt.

Why and When?

A space council should support the implementation and coordination of the President’s policies. A space council should not supplant or usurp the authorities of the accountable leadership. A space council should be truly “national.” The public tends to equate space activities with NASA. A space council is often seen as a NASA oversight committee and, in past practice, it has been. This should be avoided at all costs. NASA and NOAA have Senate-confirmed administrators for a reason. The Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force both have Senate-confirmed secretaries. The leadership should be expected and allowed to do their duties.

Timing is also very important. A space council should not be established before the President establishes his national space policy. If the space council’s raison d’être is to implement the policy, then there is nothing to do before that policy is established. The existing processes in the White House for policy making should be utilized, like the National Security Council, and when the policy is done it can be handed over to the space council to implement.

Of course, this raises the question of the real need for a space council. It could be argued that the President or Vice President could call quarterly meetings to assess the implementation of policy. If the White House leadership was willing to call such quarterly meetings, then the need for a space council would be greatly reduced.

Implement, Coordinate, Prioritize, and … We’re Missing One More Element

Yet there is one thing a space council and the departments and agencies cannot do well: provide strategic advice. Space policy activities at the national level are exercises in crisis management. You are constantly dealing with the next threat, program problem, or budget issue. This is not to say that the people involved in the interagency process do not think about the future implications of their actions but, rather, that they only have the time and bandwidth to deal with the myriad critical issues that are happening right now.

A Presidential space advisory board should be established to provide that strategic vision and different points of view. Such a board would consist of non-government global leaders from a variety of backgrounds such as technology, foreign policy, science, national security, and commerce.

There Are No New Problems

The ability to implement, coordinate, prioritize, and strategize will have a positive effect on our space program. Although, in full disclosure, I have a biased opinion on this matter. After completing the 2010 National Space Policy, I drafted an Executive Order that would have established these two entities. For a variety of reasons, that Executive Order never made it further than my desk.  Hopefully, others can learn from this.

Space enables our economy, develops next-generation technology, enhances security, enables humanitarian efforts, and expands our horizons and knowledge.

The only option is to get it right.

Peter Marquez served as the National Security Council’s director of space policy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.