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What the Heck Is the National Space Council?

The Trump administration announced it's forming a group that will oversee NASA.

Caroline Haskins

Caroline Haskins

Image: White House

During an address last week to the new class of NASA's astronauts, Mike Pence announced that President Trump will be restoring the National Space Council after it was disbanded 24 years ago. But what's the council, and how will it impact NASA?

Pence will head the council, which was an oversight entity formed during the Space Race. Historically, the council has overseen all American space activities, including NASA and the Pentagon's space programs. But the council has had different levels of power under different presidents. It was disbanded by Nixon and wasn't relaunched until 1989 by George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton got rid of it again in 1993, meaning Trump will become just the second president since Lyndon Johnson to use the council.

I called up John Logsdon, a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, who said that historically, the council has been a bit of an annoyance for NASA.

"From the White House point of view, the Council tried to orient NASA to the President's interest—particularly back in 1989, when NASA was resisting what the President was telling it to do," Logsdon told me. "From NASA's point of view, it was an unwelcome layer of bureaucracy between it and the President."

Logsden said Scott Pace, the current head of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, is widely expected to head the Space Council's staff. Pace is a vocal supporter of sending US astronauts back to the moon.

Pence didn't outline any specific objectives when he announced his leadership role on the future council—he simply painted a vision of renewing American space leadership.

"Our National Space Council will re-energize the pioneering spirit of America in space and ensure that America never again loses our lead in space exploration, innovation, and technology," Pence said.

It is unclear, then, what role the National Space Council will play in overseeing NASA. Presumably, the council will also play a role in helping the development of America's commercial space sector, which was essentially nonexistent the last time the council was operating.

Logsden thinks Trump will sign an Executive Order officially re-establishing the National Space Council in the next couple of weeks.

"It's a perennial space issue whether a White House coordination and promotion body is better for the Space Council or not," Logsdon said. "And different Presidents have had different views. Mr. Trump apparently wants to use the space program as part of 'making America great again.'"