Monday, July 10, 2017

Space Councils and Starship Troopers

          By Brian Orlotti

In the past week, US President Trump has moved to resurrect the National Space Council (NSC) and a US Congressional panel has put plans for a US Space Corps in the 2018 defence budget. Both moves highlight (at least superficially) a rekindling of US government interest in refocusing its space efforts.

US President Donald Trump stands with VP Pence (left) and former astronaut/ space icon Edwin Eugene ("Buzz") Aldrin Jr. during the June 30th signing ceremony to re-establish the US NSC.  Aldrin ad-libbed "To Infinity and Beyond," to commemorate the ceremony while Trump added, "Infinity. It could be infinity. We really don't know. But it could be. There's gotta be something. But it could be infinity, right?" To see the complete video of the signing, including Aldrin's comment (beginning at the 02:21 mark), simply click on the screenshot above. Video c/o The Washington Post.

On June 30th, the signing ceremony for the executive order re-establishing the NSC took place at the White House. The key member of the council will be its chairman, US Vice President Mike Pence. The new NSC’s mandate includes the coordination of military, civil, and commercial space activities and the setting of broader goals for the United States in space.

As outlined in the June 30th, 2017 Washington Post article, "Trump revives National Space Council," Both Trump and Pence spoke at the ceremony, though their remarks mostly consisted of shop-worn platitudes about restoring American leadership in space and the human need to explore.

Beneath the red white and blue platitudes, however, another message can be found. The crowd at the ceremony mainly consisted of NASA’s traditional group of contractors; nearly all of them prime- or subcontractors on the US Space Launch System (SLS) and its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV), the expensive, NASA funded, designed and built vehicle for future "deep space exploration."

After the ceremony, the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration (CDSE), an American based space advocacy organization supporting the continued government investment in space exploration. issued a statement noting that many of its members were invited. These included:
  • Orbital ATK (represented by John Steinmeyer, director of business development, Launch Vehicle Division)
Noticeably absent from the event were the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), a competing private spaceflight industry group more focused on NewSpace companies (they weren't invited) and the two most prominent NewSpace leaders, SpaceX's Elon Musk and Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos, who were unable to attend the ceremony due to the short notice they were given.

The move could be seen as an attempt to shut out NewSpace from the NSC with (perhaps) some added retribution for Elon Musk’s resignation from Donald Trump’s business advisory council earlier this year.

A new "user's advisory group" will also be created to advise the new council. According to the executive order, the advisory group's purpose will be to "ensure that the interests of industries and other non-federal entities involved in space activities, including in particular commercial entities, are adequately represented in the council."

Whether this group will include NewSpace firms or only traditional NASA contractors remains anyone’s guess.

But the civilian sector isn't the only sector looking to the high frontier.

On July 3rd, the US House Armed Services Committee (HASC) included a provision in the House version of the 2018 US defence budget that would create a separate military branch dedicated to space: the US Space Corps. It would also create a separate joint command, the US Space Command.

Currently, the US Air Force oversees the US military's space affairs, including procurement of launches for military and intelligence satellites as well as the operation of major US launch facilities.

Under the proposed legislation,  the new service would be administered by the Secretary of the Air Force (in much the same way as the Marine Corps falls under the US Department of the Navy), but would be a separate branch of the military and be granted its own membership of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As outlined in the July 8th, 2017 Gizmodo post, "Congress Close to Approving a New Space Army," the proposal faces an uphill battle as the US Senate’s version of the defence budget does not currently include the same provision. Such political  maneuvering will likely echo the battles once fought over the creation of the US Air Force.

Still, the proposal shows recognition of the need for better protection of space assets as well as, perhaps, a tacit acknowledgment that the opening space frontier will need sheriffs as well as cowboys.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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