When considering US vice president Mike Pence, one might be inclined to recall that time he voted against recognising Pi Day, or his alleged tendency to refer to his wife as “mother”. In his latest ascension within the Trump administration, Pence — who is ostensibly a creationist — will be given the responsibility of leading a science and technology-oriented committee.
Photo: Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla
The initiative Pence will be helming is the National Space Council (NSC), which was originally founded under US president Eisenhower in 1958 as a centralised coordinating authority to direct policy for agencies that deal with space, such as NASA, the Department of Defence and the National Reconnaissance Office. Since then, the committee has been killed and resurrected a few times, most recently in 1989 for four years during the George H.W. Bush administration. In the ’90s, president Clinton decided to deactivate the organisation, as it wasn’t doing anything particularly valuable. But no obvious warning signs will stop President Trump — at some point very soon, SpaceNews reports that he’s expected to issue an executive order to reinstate the committee.
“The recommendation coming out of the Trump campaign to create the National Space Council is going to happen,” former space policy adviser Robert Walker, who once called NASA’s earth sciences division “politicised science”, said at a symposium for Ultra Low-Cost Access to Space in Washington, DC. “It’s a way of ensuring that the nation’s resources are all directed towards national goals.”
So far, the Trump administration has appeared quite interested in space, if not in training the next generation of rocket scientists. Recently, it was announced that the US federal government will give NASA $US19.65 billion ($26.5 billion) for the fiscal year 2017, which is about $US600 million ($810 million) more than the agency originally requested. Reviving the NSC could be the administration’s way of showing that it wants to make sure all this money is being used effectively — and with Mike Pence overseeing it, what could go wrong?
To be fair to Pence, having the vice president oversee the NSC is tradition. “This is part of a historical artefact,” John Logsdon, founder of The Space Policy Institute, told Gizmodo. “In 1961, President Kennedy was looking to give Lyndon Johnson something to do as his vice president. When [Johnson] was in the senate in 1958, he had been the person most influential in creating the council, so Kennedy was advised — and agreed — that running the space council would be a good thing for Lyndon to do. It’s been a vice presidential role ever since.”
But according to Logsdon, who has written an incredibly comprehensive analysis of the NSC’s history, reactivating the committee might not be the most effective way to coordinate US space activities. This is because, for one thing, the NSC was never really that influential of an organisation.
“Frankly, it’s never been very important,” Logsdon explained. “It’s been used on a few occasions. It was used to put together the recommendations to President Kennedy to go the Moon.”
Aside from a few blips on the relevancy radar, the NSC hasn’t done much to make space great again… or ever. Some, like former NASA administrator James Webb, resented the extra buffer between his agency at the White House during the Kennedy administration. So, one has to ask, will reviving a historically insignificant organisation be a spectacular waste?
“That’s controversial,” Logsdon said. “I think there’s a clear need for coordination of the national space effort at the level at the top of the government. Whether this is the best way to do it is arguable.”
To be fair, some experts think that a revived NSC could act as a liaison between Congress and the White House to resolve funding disputes. “There’s a lot of congressional guidance on the programs they fund, and they don’t always align with the administration’s viewpoints,” James Reuter, deputy associate administrator for programs in NASA’s space technology mission directorate, said at the Ultra Low-Cost Access to Space symposium. “Perhaps a space council could help us.” Others at the symposium expressed hope that the NSC would foster more government cooperation with the commercial space industry.
According to Logsdon, the NSC is made up of the vice president, the head of NASA, a senior official from the Department of Defence, and another official from the Department of Transportation of commerce, among other high-ranking officials. “But the real work is done by its staff,” he explained. “So one of the key issues if this proposal emerges, is how many staff positions will the executive secretary have to do this coordinating job?” Since its unclear how much the NSC will be able to staff up — or how influential it will be — Logsdon suggests that having an adequately staffed National Security Council would be a better use of time and resources.
In any case, the executive order to revive the NSC is expected to come down any day. We can only hope Mike Pence is prepared for the enormous burden of nothingness headed his way.