On the eve of Sputnik's 60th anniversary, Vice President Mike Pence announced the Trump administration will direct NASA to return astronauts to the moon and partner with private spaceflight organizations in an effort to re-establish the U.S. as an exploration and commercial powerhouse.
It was the official kickoff of the revived National Space Council, which President Donald Trump tasked Pence to chair, with additional involvement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.
These initiatives are nothing particularly new. Previous administrations have ushered NASA toward lunar and Martian goals, but turning those lofty ideas into reality is tricky and can take expensive, time-consuming bites out of pre-existing commitments the government agency has on its docket.
Experts warn that without active measures to seriously partner with commercial space travel companies, the National Space Council will serve merely as a prop.
In the past, private enterprise has often been pitted against the government in an attempt to create a space race within U.S. borders. But little sustained exploration came of the feud. Instead, a truly focused council, with policy behind its claims, may be the only way to re-solidify the nation as the juggernaut of the cosmos.
A Downward Path on Space Exploration
During his remarks at that October meeting, Pence complained that previous administrations had abandoned efforts to establish the U.S. as a leading power in space. “Rather than competing with other nations to create the best space technology,” he said, “the previous administration chose capitulation.”
That's not entirely true, of course. American space exploration has been hacked out of budgets over time. When George W. Bush requested increased NASA funds in 2004, for example, he got a bipartisan thumbs-down from Congress.
To stem that downward spiral much earlier, his father, George H.W. Bush, established the National Space Council in 1989 to serve the confluence of civil, military, and commercial space issues, but the council disbanded a few short years later, in 1993.
With its stagnant operating budget, NASA's ability to send aircraft into low-earth orbit is weak, suggested Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, in 2013.
“If there is no outside help over the next 10 years, only a very modest human exploration effort is possible,” he told reporters four years ago.
One former space official disputed Pence's claim the U.S. was treading water for the past eight years. Phil Larson, a former White House space adviser in the Obama administration and current assistant dean at the University of Colorado's engineering school, pointed toward the success of SpaceX's Falcon 9 carrier rocket as proof of the success under Obama.
“I see Vice President Pence said we've abdicated our leadership in space. Meanwhile, we've had 23 launches from United States aerospace companies just this year, which is almost double any other country,” Larson told IJR. “Our approach under President Obama was more focused on enabling us to go everywhere as opposed to just one place.”
To Larson, the council as it stands seems to be smoke and mirrors.
“It really is a little bit of theater with the potential to leading to something good,” he said.
Larson offered that the best way to break the cycle of taking small risks on projects and not seeing them entirely through was for the government to throw all of its weight behind innovation giants such as SpaceX, which seem to be setting the bar for private-sector capabilities, especially when it comes to cutting costs for NASA.
“If we have commercial sector capabilities, we should use them for government services. If that's something that the commercial sector can provide at lower cost, they should,” he added.
Trump's hopeful resuscitation of the National Space Council with a tighter focus on public-private partnerships would likely save NASA a tremendous amount of money. NASA currently functions on less than half of the budget it received in the 1960s, adjusted for today's dollars. Back in 1961, NASA received 4.31 percent of the overall federal budget. Now, the agency receives a mere 0.47 percent — nine times less — a setback that renders sustainable space travel nearly impossible.
Emerging authorities such as Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX hope to alleviate some of those shortfalls.
Musk first experimented with an alternative funding partnership back in 2006. Then, NASA established the Commercial Orbital Transportation System program, known as COTS, a pay-for-performance partnership between the government and private business that shared risks, costs and rewards for developing and executing new space programs. SpaceX was one of two entities granted a COTS Space Act Agreement in 2006 — a $396 million investment on NASA's behalf. SpaceX then offered $500 million of its own money to fund the project.
“According to NASA, '[b]ecause these were partnerships, not traditional contracts, NASA leveraged its $800 million COTS program budget [less than a single Space Shuttle mission] with partner funds,” Tim Hughes, senior vice president of global business and government affairs for SpaceX said in a statement before the Senate on July 13.
COTS served NASA commercially by lowering the costs of NASA expediters because of competition.
“SpaceX has brought this multibillion dollar market back to the United States,” Hughes said. “As a result of COTS — at least with respect to SpaceX — NASA and the Department of Defense are paying lower prices for launch with higher performance than in the past.”
An Issue of National Security
But COTS could serve national security interests, too, by providing services that NASA has been forced to outsource to foreign actors such as Russia back to the U.S. Instead of hitching rides on Russian rockets, American astronauts would be boarding their own.
Over the past several years, Russia and China have made advancements in space exploration, which Pence emphasized are notable adversaries to the U.S. diplomatic mission in space, a memory of the rivalry that initially launched the U.S. into orbit in the 1960s and 1970s. Pence honed in on the U.S.'s reliance on Russian spacecrafts to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station as a major faux pas of the prior administration.
And so, Pence said, Russia and China were able to showcase themselves as superpowers in national security, pursuing anti-satellite technology to “reduce U.S. military effectiveness.”
A U.S. intelligence official told IJR that moving forward with an eye toward China may be wise.
“China has the most rapidly maturing space program in the world,” said the official. The official noted that China's space program has a particular emphasis on satellite communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, satellite navigation and meteorology.
According to the official, China has been leveling up with counter-warfare capabilities “designed to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets.”
“China is developing counter space cyber and electronic warfare capabilities,” said the intelligence official. “They're looking to deny adversaries the advantages of modern warfare.”
Other officials representing pioneers in commercial space travel echoed the call for unity between private and public enterprise.
“We have proven that U.S. ventures in space lead to broad societal benefits that lift our national economy,” Marillyn A. Hewson, chief executive of Lockheed Martin, remarked at the National Space Council meeting.
“We eagerly anticipate the day Americans once again return to deep space on American vehicles,” said Mary Dittmar, president and CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, in a statement following the council meeting.
In a statement, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot explained that a revamped organization meant a recommitment to defining space power as a combination of “national security, commerce, international relations, exploration, and science.”
All of this talk must materialize into actual policy if the National Space Council wants to get wheels off the ground, as reports suggest. Pence tasked the council with finalizing a framework, required by a NASA authorization bill signed into law in March, sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). The report, due on Congress's doorstep in December, will hope to guide legislation with specific goals and monetary guidelines.
Space policy expert Marcia Smith told The Verge she's hopeful Congress's renewed enthusiasm for space will inspire actual progress.
“This may be the magic moment when all the forces are going to align and finally we’re going to get some steps forward," she said.
Pushing legislation would deliver on a promise Trump made in his inauguration speech in January that his administration was “ready to unlock the mysteries of space.”