The past decade of US astronomy glitters with some truly astonishing accomplishments, amongst them landing a SUV-sized, nuclear-powered science machine on the surface of Mars, and answering the longstanding question of whether other possible Earths lurk in the cosmos (a resounding YES). Even in a tight funding environment, astronomers and planetary scientists have pushed the frontiers of discovery, both NASA- and private industry-led efforts to develop home-grown launch capacities have been pressing ahead, and exciting new missions to explore both our own solar system and deep space are planned for the future.
Listening to Vice President Mike Pence's statement at the first meeting of the newly-reanimated National Space Council, however, one might be forgiven for getting the impression that things aren't going well. The Vice President stated that "rather than lead in space, we have often chosen to drift,” and stated that our space program suffers from "apathy and neglect.” Listening to Pence's address echo across the hanger of space luminaries, the Discovery space shuttle peeking over his shoulder, I couldn't help but find his narrative surreal. After all, some 250 miles over his head, Americans were nonchalantly plunging in orbit around our planet, tethered to the International Space Station as they busily engaged in the work of living in space.
Despite its crisp, futuristic name, the National Space Council is a recurring relic of the past, like a chain letter that surfaces every few decades or so. Since its inception in the late 50s (originally as the National Aeronautics and Space Council), the NSC has usually served as a kind of vestigial membrane attached to the Office of the President. Originally, it was something like a civilian scientific advisory body, but the lack of actual policy makers in its membership limited its ability to do much beyond render opinions it had no authority to enact, and to which no one was beholden.
Later iterations remedied that flaw by including members from government (as is currently the case, where the council is comprised largely of members of the President's cabinet), but ultimately the NSC has remained an ineffectual bureaucratic film, a flimsy barrier between decision makers, and those who actually carry out our presence in space. Indeed, when the NSC was last given a mandate to create a bold vision for space exploration during the George H. W. Bush administration, it brought forth the Space Exploration Initiative, a plan that clocked in at a cost of around $400 billion, a proposal so preposterously out of step with funding reality that space policy experts have referred to it as "stillborn.”
In light of the NSC's checkered history, it's perhaps not surprising that the messaging during its inaugural meeting was so mixed. Pence’s first (leading) question to the civilian space industry panel asserted that the US lags behind in space, essentially putting the panel members in the position of contradicting the Vice President if they were to answer directly. The panelists, along with those of the second civilian panel, parried this assertion in turn like synchronized swimmers, with Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX even countering that "there is a Renaissance underway in space.”
On the tails of their optimism came the defense panel. Here the message was dark, and fear-driven: we are vulnerable to our enemies, and coordinated efforts to be fearsome are the only way to prevent having to defend ourselves from both state or non-state actors moving against us. Much like the NSC's relationship to policy makers, the historical interface between the military and the NSC is a curious one—defense uses of space are typically the purview of the National Security Council, which carries out its own, independent agenda, unperturbed by the opinions of the National Space Council.
Why breathe life back into the body of a group that never had much to begin with? While some branches of science find themselves under attack in the current administration, space enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress, with especially strong advocates for some specific projects and missions—e.g. Rep. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and the development of NASA’s Space Launch System, or Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) and the Europa Clipper. When the Executive Order that revived the NSC was signed back in June, some analysts posited that the National Space Council could be a beneficial force, if led by a Vice President with a strong history of interest and knowledge of space (which Pence does not have), and appropriately peopled by those in positions to both create and carry out an implementable vision of the United States' presence in space (which the Cabinet is not). At this first meeting, though, it seemed only that the zombie of previous Councils had risen again—it’s true that the NSC can be a convener of expertise, as seen in the panels, but to what end? If anything, the main thing accomplished by the revival of the NSC is to shift visioneering efforts for the future of US presence in space towards the Executive Branch, and away from Congress.
Almost exactly a year ago, I sat in a hall at Carnegie Mellon University, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with scientists from a wide variety of STEM fields. We were all there for the White House Frontiers Conference, a kind of last-hurrah festival of science and technology, put on by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the twilight of the Obama administration.* There (and in an op-ed for CNN in the days prior) then-President Obama outlined a vision for humanity's future on Mars. Mars and the Moon have long been the two favorite political footballs of interplanetary exploration, each with their own fervent base of advocates. Fans of the Moon (such as Newt Gingrich, or George W. Bush before him) often argue that a permanent base on the Moon is an essential stepping stone in our eventual journey to Mars, although no one has yet connected the dots as to how that specifically might happen. When folding in funding realities, even propositions advocating both the Moon and Mars have been broadly understood to mean the Moon... and then, maybe later, Mars.
In Vice President Pence's address to the NSC meeting, the emphasis was decidedly on a return to the Moon, prior to sending humans to Mars. For anyone who follows interplanetary politics, that pivot wasn't surprising—Moon advocates like Gingrich (who himself once seemed a willing potential pick for Trump's running mate) have the ear of the current administration. If you didn't see the writing on the wall, those in the private space industry likely did—Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, began talking publicly about going to the Moon before Mars about two weeks after the signing of the Executive Order that re-established the NSC.
From the broader perspective of the current administration's priorities, the Moon makes a lot of sense: not because the Moon holds great scientific potential, but because of its potential as a strategic outpost for national security, or as a place to obtain material resources (e.g. via mining operations). It's straightforward to see those priorities reflected in the makeup of the two panels: one on national security, two from private industry. It is telling (but not surprising) that the discussion didn't include science except in the broadest of brushstrokes—science is not a priority for this administration (and to be fair, it isn't really a priority for any administration except when tied to American strategic advancement, it's just that some administrations leave basic scientific research more breathing room to proceed unharrassed).
Leaving aside the harsh realities of any country’s political motivations to go to space, as a member of the astronomical community, it’s hard not to feel like a passenger in the back seat of a car, watching an ongoing struggle over the steering wheel. Having the vision for our space program remain agile and responsive in a changing science and technology landscape is one thing, but it bears remembering that if all we do is pivot, we'll never get anywhere.
*Editor's note: due to an editing error, we originally stated that OSTP has "officially dropped to zero staff members." This is incorrect. "Right now," according to a White House official, “OSTP has a staff of about 45, and is anticipated to reach around 55-60, in line with that of the Bush era." We regret the error.