President Donald Trump has signed an executive order reconstituting the National Space Council under Vice President Mike Pence to better coordinate space policy and activities across the government.
Experts are split on whether the council will succeed in its goal or simply add another level of frustrating bureaucracy on top of the existing system.
There is another concern, however, that has received minimal attention thus far.
This is the first step of the White House imposing more control over NASA. Step 2 will come when Trump gets around to nominating a new administrator and deputy administrator to lead the space agency.
I am concerned about what will happen at that point. The administration has already proposed eliminating all or parts of five environmental projects from NASA’s budget as well as closing down NASA’s education program. I fear worse may be to come.
The evidence from other government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy is not encouraging. Administration appointees there have dismissed climate change as a serious issue, eliminated entire sections on the subject from agency websites, and removed scientists from key advisory boards with the intent of replacing them with industry representatives.
I worry that a new leader at NASA could take similar steps in an effort to align the space agency with the administration’s political ideology. That could be very bad for the space agency in the long run.
NASA is the gold standard in terms of government agencies. It’s widely respected the world over for its achievements and its integrity. It routinely wins polls as the best place to work in government. And it operates in a very open manner with the press and the public.
One only needs to look at the daily White House press briefings to see the sort of damage the administration’s secretive, combative, ideologically-driven and frequently dishonest approach to public information and accountability could do to NASA.
At present, we can usually depend on what NASA tells us. It would be very unfortunate if the space agency were to lose that reputation. Once lost, it’s difficult to get back.