Will the National Space Council Make a Difference at NASA?

Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements. (Credit: NASA)

Warren Ferster Consulting asks whether the newly revived National Space Council will make much of a difference at NASA, whose human deep space programs are dependent upon the Congressionally supported Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft.

Some have suggested that, with a space council chaired by Vice President Mike Pence cracking the whip, the full potential of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin can be brought to bear in support of the nation’s space goals. The implication is this hasn’t happened to date, which is puzzling since leveraging commercial capabilities to support the International Space Station was the centerpiece of former President Barack Obama’s space policy.

Obama was challenged in that effort not by the lack of a National Space Council, but by Capitol Hill, where key lawmakers viewed his outsourcing initiative as a threat to the pet program that they mandated, the decidedly uncommercial Space Launch System.

The super-heavy-lift SLS is exhibit A of the argument that getting the Executive Branch speaking with one voice on space policy, while sensible, won’t matter a great deal if Congress has a different agenda.

To recap, Obama’s human spaceflight policy was to outsource ISS crew and cargo transportation and invest in technologies with the potential to change the economics of deep space exploration. To make budgetary room, Obama canceled Constellation, a collection of hardware development programs begun under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

The article notes that Bush got bipartisan approval from Congress for the Constellation program without a National Space Council. The program included Orion and two space shuttle-derived Ares boosters for human orbital and deep-space missions.

Obama subsequently canceled the Constellation program, only to have Congress revive the program as SLS and Orion. Only the smaller Ares orbital booster was canceled.

  • Robert G. Oler

    it is hard to see any change happening since there is no NASA administrator to offer it

  • There are no silver/magic bullets in space development. No single political rivalry, company, agency or council is going to make this happen. It’s all hard work and incremental improvements. If you want to help move the ball down the field, join an existing group, or create your own and get work.

  • JamesG

    Administrators administrate, they don’t make changes.

    Commercial Cargo and Crew were adhoc developments to be able to continue to meet ISS commitments in the wake of the STS and Constellation cancellations. It went along with what was in the political aire at the time (“look! shovel ready jobs!”).

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    You just hit on the main failing of the American space movement. But before I go on, I’ll add that no other country has a movement running as deep through the country as we have, however we do have a failure mode that runs front and center. That failure mode is peoples desire to be administrators themselves, and not go out and do the work themselves. The knowledge base of the amateur American space advocate and armchair analyst is sometimes really impressive, however it’s not guided by experience and failure. The American space movement would be much better served if they would get off their arse and do some real work. Hardware, software, even astronomical observations of objects in Near Earth space. This is creating a class of American space enthusiasts who are lazy and opinionated and like the two old men in the Muppet Show sharpen their knives at criticizing the shortcomings of the players on the stage who do the real work.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Administrators matter. They go a long way toward setting the overall culture and operations of the organization and decide on what terms money flows. At a first order an administrator sets the nature of how subgroups interact with funding agencies, what they do, and how do they report. For instance, can a research group conduct research for the sake of research alone, and can it report and propose on those grounds? Or does the activity of the group have to fall within guidelines of a policy, and does it report its work as serving that policy? If so, how tightly is it tied to that policy? Even that bifurcation has many sub-types of permutations on how to deal with the reality on the ground vs any stated policy. Given this administrations hands off policy, and it’s inability to work with the Republican Congress at a level that seems to be on par with the Obama administration, much of what will happen will just be a continuation of the Obama administration just because of inertia. The EPA and Education dep’s stand out as exceptions to this, but those exceptions are driven by exceptional administrators who went into office with agendas of their own that they are motivated to pursue it seems independent of guidance from the chief executive.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    At NASA? Doubtful. NASA will do the usual hybrid of whatever they are told to do and made to do by POTUS and Congress respectively.

    Whether the National Space Council will make a difference in general, however, depends on its real—as opposed to stated—objectives.

    If its real objective is to ‘catch a piece of the action’ as in picking winners and losers or channeling some of those nice NASA billions into quarters where it can be retrieved later after we leave the presidency, then no, that is nothing new, so no difference.

    If the objective is to find ways to boost the national economy then the answer is yes and no. Yes, because the focus will then be SLS/Orion type projects which will run up job numbers and make the economy look good. No, because the good looks will be superficial: SLS/Orion type projects dig a hole to fill a hole, the money is merely touring, no value is being added, either on earth or in space.

    If the objective is to really move things along in space, then it will depend on what the Council can do about deadweights like SLS/Orion on the one hand, and how best it can support and encourage what is already making a difference on the other. If resources can be found to rage on both fronts then maybe, maybe the Council will make a difference. But if not, and it becomes a matter of either/or, and, as many suspect, there is nothing to be done about SLS/Orions, then nope, the NSC is not going to make a difference.

  • savuporo

    Betteridge’s law of headlines

  • MzUnGu

    Anyone remember what the last National Space Council had done in the pass that made any differences…? Now, apply past experiences to current situation…..

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    The National Space Council is likely to be bad for SLS and Orion. The Council consists mostly of representatives of the military and intelligence agencies. None of whom are involved in human spaceflight. Their satellites use smaller launch vehicles.

  • Jeff2Space

    So the key then is to insure that the right developments are funded. Take SLS as an example. What in its design advances the state of the art of launch vehicles? Not much. It’s just a very huge regurgitation of 1970’s (SRBs and SSMEs) and later tech (some advances in manufacturing like improved friction stir welding and the like). SLS is a hugely expensive boondoggle which is holding NASA back.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    It won’t it won’t matter what the WH or NSC wants to do if Congress wants something different.

  • I don’t think there are ANY silver bullets. Neither having SLS, nor canceling SLS will create a spaceflight utopia. It’s also very hard to predict which technology or program will turn out to be the long term winner (something about Yogi Berra and predicting the future). A lot of money has been poured into winged flight, but SpaceX and Blue Origin are following the much less funded example of DC-X.

  • Jeff2Space

    I agree that it’s hard to pick a long term winner when it comes to technology. But, SLS is a essentially a big bet that technology really won’t change and spaceflight will always cost billions of dollars per flight. SLS has squandered tens of billions of dollars so far without doing anything to reduce the cost of spaceflight. Don’t you think that runs a bit counter to one of NASA’s other goals which is to develop *new* technologies?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    SLS is a question of payloads. What’s it going to fly? The magic bullet and utopia aspect of the problem lies in free cash. The logical alternative to SLS is Falcon H. Falcon heavy has payloads to fly, and when it does not, it can go away and hide as a Falcon 9 and make money in the market place or deploy payloads for the US military. That spare 2 to 3 billion dollars would go a long way towards creating a steady flow of payloads centered on manned space ops from LEO all the way to the Moon, probably even beyond. Assuming Falcon 9 H flies within the next few years and works, we’re going to have to take a serious look at SLS and come to the conclusion that we wasted yet another decade and another 30 billion dollars on another dead end.

  • Vladislaw

    Actually the authorization Act that called for the creation of commercial cargo and crew was signed into law in 1998. The Commercial Space Act of 1998.

    Congress passed it, Clinton signed it and then congress ignored it. Just like it ignored Reagan’s change to the Space Act of 1958 when it called for NASA to utilize more commercial space companies. It was passed by congress and signed into law and then ignored as much as possible.



    The shuttle accident and it’s call for retirement in 2010 was the event that allowed the executive branch to finally push commercial cargo and crew onto congress. Bush managed to get commercial cargo in exchange for the pork rocket Ares I & V and Obama traded another pork rocket the SLS for commercial crew.

  • JamesG

    SLS is a big bet that there is an actual need to very heavy lift in the near future that needed to be solved with the then/now current state-o-the-art (big giant multi billion dollar rockets).

    Of course technology is going to change and spaceflight will get cheaper, just like the all the dozens models of post WWII jet aircraft we paid for to develop that were already obsolete before their production runs were over. That just means the MIC can move on to the next latest and greatests.

  • JamesG

    Right. and wrong. There are a myrad of things that Congress has authorized to spend on and either doesn’t or underfunds them. CC was finally funded in addition to Constellation because (besides politics) there was a need to get cargo to the ISS in lue of or before Ares was going to be ready. CC was already rolling when Obama came to town, and “Son of Constellation” SLS was the payoff for getting the ACA thru Congress.

  • Vladislaw

    No, because there wasn’t any constellation program. The Vision for Space Exploration called for no new rockets for NASA. What it did call for commercial cargo and crew.

    The Bush administration wanted to do a down and dirty get a capsule on an EELV as fast as possible and that was it for NASA. Heavy lift was a can they wanted to kick down the road to the next admiinistration.

    O’Keefe was VERY explicit when he went to capital hill and explained this to the committees. Suddenly O’Keefe gets offered his “dream job” the only job he would leave NASA for. A job offered by a state that was about to see it’s NASA center turn into a ghost town. Michoud.

    The Senate brings in Griffin who conducts the 60 day study (this turned into the ESAS) and stated that EELVs were now not only to expensive but also to dangerous and NASA would now not only build a new rocket .. but TWO new rockets – the constellation program.

  • Jeff2Space

    I think it’s quite likely SLS will be obsolete before it flies with a crew on top.

  • JamesG

    From an economic/fiscal perspective, its already there.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    As long as the NSC follows the current Human Space exploration policy they don’t have to do much. Maybe add to it some.

  • savuporo

    Not having human spaceflight in there is probably a good thing. More pragmatic policy as a result, hopefully.

  • windbourne

    The interesting thing is that what really matters IS the economic/fiscal POV.
    Unless prices are low, we can not go anywhere. Hell, even if we launch SLS monthly, it is just too expensive.

    FH can get us started on the moon and then be replaced by BFR. The question is, will Congress push this, or will private space be smart and courageous enough to serve as a service companies for other nations? I wonder if Bigelow and space can approach UAE and get them to agree to put say 2-3 ppl on the moon for a year? Such an announcement would light a fire for space.

  • duheagle

    I’m not altogether certain who you have in mind as “the players” nor on what “stage” they are doing “the real work.” Are you being vague and elliptical in offering the notion embodied in the punch-line to an old joke, to wit – “You no play-a da game, you no make-a da rules!” – or did you have something else in mind? Is this a way of saying NASA should be immune to criticism? Clarify, please.

    Re: “lazy.” You work in academe. If you have any personal side projects, you have a great many resources available to you, paid for by taxpayers, that you can use to advance them. You even have the more than casual possibility of turning such a project into a formal effort that your employer will back.

    Most of us have no such advantages nor ever have had same. Anything I do is on my own dime. Damned few of my dimes are surplus to basic necessities these days.

    I reserve the right to criticize anyone on a public payroll – period.

    Criticisms of anyone and anything can, in any case, be judged and contrary opinion offered in rebuttal. I don’t wilt under criticism and anyone who does has no business on these forums anyway.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    1) Should NASA be immune to criticism? Of course not. The American style of government is dependent on it. I’m only pointing out a failure in the system. While criticism is needed, you have to take critics with a grain of salt. Much as in the art world where the overwhelming majority of critics don’t generate content. As to ‘lazy’ I’m making reference to the critic who has no experience generating content yet feels free to lay into a content generator. I’m not saying they should not have the freedom to do it, they can. And sometimes make good points, but for the most part I consider them to be full of hot air as in most cases they don’t even operate at the base level.

    I think amateur efforts are awesome, in fact, I hold them in very high regard. Even higher than most professional efforts. Amateurs make the best professionals, and amateurs who only remain amateurs constitute the highest form of what Eisenhower referred to in his Farewell speech when he said ….

    “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing
    of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our
    peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper

    He also forewarned of something that I think would be a point close to your heart from my summations of my reading of your posts namely ….

    “Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we
    should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that
    public policy could itself become the captive of a
    scientific-technological elite.”.

    In the face of an ignorant public and bafoons-ideologs statesmen, I’ll take the scientific elite as a stopgap. But I understand it has it pitfalls. However the proper balance I think comes from a community of approx 80% skilled amateurs and 20% professionals. If the economy allows for a different mix, then the mix will be what the mix will be. But in our current economy, I’d place the balance about there.

    I also want to add that I don’t favor professionals because we have had the opportunity to succeed, but rather because we are granted to opportunity to FAIL and learn from our failures. That’s key, that is the critical difference. A successful research effort is one that has failed far more and learned. A disciplined amateur can present themselves with a failure opportunity but will they carry through with trying again, and learning to make things work? I think that fine point breaks down a lot in the real world, and as a community we don’t try to pick ourselves up and help each other through the process. We try to knock each other down far too often.

  • Tom Billings

    The last NSC, acting on data from Max Hunter and his friends, brought forth the recommendation for DC-X, which worked very well in proving you could land a rocketship vertically, within the Earth’s atmosphere. This happened even though the NSC was cancelled by Clinton, so that it could be replaced by the Clinton WH “Space Architect”, whose real job was to define away all chance of the military ever participating in human spaceflight. That was supposed to eliminate any chance of a “Space Force” developing out of SDIO activity. This was the sop to the anti-military wing of the Democratic Party that made up for SDIO just being reduced to BMDO, instead of being utterly cancelled.

    The result was the Space Architect’s plans, and the Clinton DoD’s hostility to DC-X. In this, members of Congress had to sue the administration’s Comptroller of the Office of the Secretary of Defense to get checks from appropriated funds actually written to McDAC for paying the DC-X ground crew to fly it. The plan was that NASA was to do the follow-on, the X-33, which the plan reduced from an orbital vehicle to a Mach 14 test vehicle.

    Then, NASA’s team chose the McDAC/Boeing team for X-33, until they got a little visit from OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy), whose young lady made it clear that technology based on the old SABRE re-entry warhead test vehicle from the 1960s was unacceptably militaristic. Since by then there were only 2 teams for selection, these old NASA hands knew what they were being told to do. They re-juggled their selection criteria, and selected the X-33 proposal of LockMart, which just by chance was already the largest corporate contributor to the Clinton/Gore 1996 re-election campaign fund. That Al Gore ran the OSTP was just a coincidence as well…..Nothing More. And if you believe, ….never mind.

    So, the future that Delta Clipper’s DC-X might have opened at the recommendation of the NSC was foreclosed, and the last benefits of the NSC with it. That 6-year struggle illuminates what the real struggle is for *any* Space Council, …to develop a national consensus on spaceflight and the policies surrounding it, from Commercial Activity, to Civil Government activity, to Military Government activity. That consensus does not yet exist. It especially does not exist for military activity in Space, but also is not there for commercial activity, which sees great opposition from any district getting civil government space funding that is not also bribed by commercial companies by placing plants in the district.

    The greatest benefit we could see from a National Space Council is the development of a positive national consensus on spaceflight. Any NASA, that is all alone in Space, without the functions of Commercial and Military activities, is a flower that will wilt into grey pork-ridden irrelevance.

    That, however, will await the settlement of a national consensus about what the US is, and what its future should be. As long as academia’s progressive acolytes contend, that any America that must be militarily defended at a cost greater than what academia receives from all levels of government, is *not* an America worth defending, then the basic consensus, on which a national spaceflight consensus can be built, simply will not happen.

  • JamesG

    Do you know how often an Executive Branch program, initiative, Gud Idea survives contact with reality (aka: Congress) in its original form?


  • Vladislaw

    I understand that and it is why I have said the executive branch and congress have had opposing views of space since apollo. Congress wants the endless gravy train and the executive branch has wanted to commercial and industrialize space. The budgets are so small though it is not worth the political capital to go after .. so it is has taken 30 years to get the legislation through and acted on. We still need more regulations today for dealing with this frontier.

  • JamesG

    Usually the POTUS just wants to polish his “legacy” or he’s been put up to it by a constituent, some faction of congress, or other gud idea fairy. No one since Apollo has made a very sincere National Interest case for the investme nt in space beyond National Security and that is why its floundered.

  • JamesG

    The trick is to keep the current Human Space exploration policy from changing the next time the political wind changes direction. That is always our problem.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The NSC has a lot more important things to focus on than NASA. Although space advocates like to believe space policy begins and ends with NASA, its only a single element of it, and an element that is decreasing in importance.

  • ThomasLMatula

    How soon folks forget. It was Lori Garver that actually pushed Commercial Crew. President Obama’s original plan was to slash NASA’s budget for education.


    President Obama only changed his policy when he felt he needed to support NASA to win Florida. To President Obama space was merely a photo-op. Once he had it he abandoned it to Congress and his science advisor.

  • Tom Billings

    ” No one since Apollo has made a very sincere National Interest case for
    the investment in space beyond National Security and that is why its

    More specifically, the voters, when polled, show *they* have not been
    presented with any National Interest that a substantial majority believe
    in. So pols have no incentive, since that is controlled by their seats, and the votes that anchor them to those seats. Making a case for a direction different than Apollo, will require admitting what the direction of Apollo was, a counter to Kruschev’s Space Propaganda campaign, and one that was very successful. That’s why we keep getting remakes of Apollo proposals that do not mention its purpose, because the US Left cannot admit, in the aftermath of Vietnam-born resistance to US defense of a non-socialist Vietnam, that Apollo was part of resistance to “the socialist camp”.

    Meanwhile, the academic Left has a very comfortable compromise that lets a number of universities skim “administrative overhead” money off of NASA payments for Space Science. Their skim for environmental science, including the management of databases, was on the verge of replacing previous NASA arrangements, which is a large part of why academics froth so much about its on-going collapse.

    By now, appeals to scientific benefits will appeal to many of those still following what they learned in college. Even there, with the rising belief that college is a swindle benefiting those administrators and tenured professors at the top of academic hierarchies, that won’t bring about the national consensus needed for a National Space Policy reflecting a national political consensus.

    IMHO, the ability to generate a national consensus about spaceflight will require that private groups risk, and then generate enough capital, that it will obviously be against the National Interest to see it lost. Only *then* will voters see a worthwhile reason to invest in both the Civil Space and the Military Space institutions. That will mean that with current plans for massive LEO comsat constellations launching in the next 4 years, we *may* see the barest beginnings of a consensus emerge by the end of a second Trump term.

  • Vladislaw

    wow ,,, you are saying he acted just like a politician …

  • Vladislaw

    I wonder if that was a photo op when trump talked to the space station and pence visited kennedy .,..

  • ThomasLMatula

    Don’t forget that the Clinton Administration also prohibited DOD from developing any RLVs in any form in its national space policy giving that authority exclusively to NASA and then used a line veto to kill the military space plane. Fortunately some quick thinking officers figured out a way to save the space plane by placing it in a X-Program with the help of a handful of like minded folks at NASA. If it wasn’t for that possibly career ending move the USAF wouldn’t have its military space plane today (X-37B).

  • ThomasLMatula

    Time will tell. But we know now that was all it was for President Obama

  • ThomasLMatula

    You are right, that was all that President Obama was, a politician.

  • Richard Malcolm

    What’s it going to fly?

    Nothing that’s funded yet.

    One almost gets the sense that Congress doesn’t care much about that.

  • Richard Malcolm

    It was Lori Garver that actually pushed Commercial Crew.

    Garver gets a lot of grief from certain quarters – especially those wedded to the Apollo Cargo Cult – but in the long run, I think it will become apparent how much America’s space economy really owes her.

  • Richard Malcolm

    That’s the most obvious assumption.

    I doubt Trump has spent more than 10 minutes thinking about NASA since his election, and not much more before. We can deprecate that, but with the very, very qualified exception of the Bushes, no president since LBJ has been all that interested in space policy. It just hasn’t been that important – or perceived to be that important – in the grand scheme of things.

  • Richard Malcolm

    EELVs were now not only to expensive but also to dangerous

    Which is extremely humorous, in light of the fact that the launcher Griffin chose to send up crew was the Ares I. Both expensive, and dangerous.

  • windbourne

    Let’s wait and see. If pence/Trump are the least bit sincere about going to the moon, then SLS will not work. Even killing ISS and Earth science will leave things too expensive.

    Hopefully, musk/Bigelow approach other nations and get 1 or more to fund several ppl for the moon. That will ignite a space race.

  • windbourne

    Yes, but do not blame NASA, but instead CONgress.

  • windbourne

    Absolutely was not. SLS was crafted by Congress to put money into many of their districts, and nothing more.

  • duheagle

    Thanks for the Ike quote anent the “scientific-technological elite.” It is, indeed, one of my faves. Lefties all know the one about the “military-industrial complex” by heart. Many, I suspect, carry it as a tatoo. The quote you cited doesn’t seem nearly as popular for some reason.

    As for preferring the scientific elite to “buffoon-idealogue statesmen,” that is unsurprising. The former constitute what a social scientist – who did his work decades ago before the terminal rot set in – calls your “reference group.”

    But what is your preference anent buffoon-idealogue scientists? Or do you not even acknowledge the legitimacy of the category?

    Climate science and the so-called “social sciences” seem populated by naught else these days. And then, of course, there are Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. All these seem to have stepped out of the ranks of “The Scientific People” in Alfred Bester’s sci-fi classic, The Stars My Destination.

    And you still hold to the notion that only participants in a field are really qualified to be critics.


    I am not now, nor have I ever been, a farrier. But I can tell the difference between a well-made and a poorly-made horseshoe. I suspect you could too.

    I am not a rocket scientist, but I can also tell the difference between a good rocket and a bad rocket. That’s especially true when the overall figure of merit gap is a yawning chasm.

    Similarly, when the gap is obvious, I can also tell real science from fake science. Real science doesn’t hide its data sets, its computer code and its mathematical models. It also doesn’t libel people who dispute it, sue them in court or agitate to criminalize their activities. So-called “climate science” does all this and more. Thus, I conclude that it is, at this point, almost entirely a fake science.

    About the only thing in your comment I thoroughly endorse is the idea that amateurs can make real contributions.

    Climate science doesn’t have many amateurs in the sense one uses that word about, say, astronomy.

    There are, of course, a non-trivial number of people who are no longer “professional” as they have been excommunicated from the field for heresy. There are also people who are professionals in other scientific disciplines who have, without compensation, pointed out incompetent and invalid uses of their own branches of science by the climate science priesthood that remains in paid sinecures.

    I’d like to see a lot more talented amateurism in climate science. I’m working on recommendations to make this possible. Those currently in the field will doubtless regard my notions as a “Modest Proposal” when they are complete and published.

  • windbourne

    And yet, Lori garver would differ with you on this. She had O’s full backing. In fact, if not for that during 7 years, ccdev would never have started or gotten to this point.
    The gop would have nothing but SLS /Orion derivitives.

  • JamesG

    Well… yes. But its notional rational used to sell it on CSPAN was so that NASA would have/need a great big rocket in order to go do neato stuff.

  • duheagle

    Bigelow may well have already broached the subject of the Moon with those six or seven countries he has memoranda of understanding with anent LEO space stations. Who he really needs to approach – assuming he hasn’t long since done so – is Jeff Bezos. Bezos wants to run people and freight to the Moon. Bigelow wants to build a Moon settlement. Bezos has more money than most nations. Seems liked a match made in the heavens to me.

  • windbourne

    Great point.
    To be fair though, Bigelow needs both BO and SX. That way, cargo and humans are guaranteed to flow.