During his campaign, candidate Donald Trump said little about space science and exploration other than that he thought it was “terrific,” hastening to add, “We have to fix our potholes, too.” As president he has been slightly more outspoken, telling Congress in February, “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream,” and pushing for NASA to accelerate its plans for sending astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. Speaking from his desk in the Oval Office, he has mused about sending humans to Mars during his second term and has promised “we’re going to lead again” in space, which he calls “the next great American frontier.”
None of this is very surprising—all presidents in recent memory have scarcely discussed space at all on the campaign trail, and once elected offer similar blandishments about the nation’s once and future leadership in space. But in at least one respect Trump’s space plans are different from those of his most recent predecessors. In June he revived the National Space Council, a White House advisory body that originated in the Eisenhower administration and was last active between 1989 and 1992, during the presidency of George H. W. Bush.
Helmed by Vice Pres. Mike Pence and packed with high-powered cabinet members including the secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce, Transportation and Homeland Security, the Space Council is meant to coordinate and oversee policymaking for the nation’s military, civil and commercial space efforts. At its first meeting, held in public on October 5 in a massive airplane hangar, Pence declared the nation would soon send humans back to the moon, breaking from an Obama-era policy that favored human missions to asteroids.
Whether, when and how such journeys ever happen, however, may depend to some degree on the day-to-day leadership of the Council by Pence’s second-in-command, Executive Secretary Scott Pace. Tapped for the position in July, Pace is the former director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University. He has previously worked for NASA, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Scientific American spoke with Pace about his goals for the National Space Council, the balance between scientific research and human space exploration, and the administration’s nascent plans to send astronauts back the moon.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What is the core purpose of the National Space Council, and why is it coming back now?
Its purpose is the same as most any White House coordinating body that works issues which cut across multiple departments and agencies: to press the president’s agenda down and oversee that it’s being done, and then to adjudicate issues that come up, where there naturally will be conflicts or differences of viewpoint between different agencies.
Also, space has become much more globalized. There are many more players in it. Some people call it the democratization of space. But there are certainly many more spacefaring countries around then ever before. There are many more private sector actors that are more capable than ever before. And so it’s a much more complex world than when we were responding to a space race, or dealing with the immediate aftermath of the cold war. Because of this globalization of space, because a lot of these space issues cut across multiple agencies and departments, coordination at the level of the White House has natural value.
In terms of enacting the White House’s agenda, the two most important facts here are that the president cares and that the vice president cares. That makes all the difference in the world. I work for the vice president in particular, and I’ve been very gratified with how interested, engaged and energetic he is on this challenging subject. He’s pushing always to do more. And the other offices have been very welcoming. There is an interest group spread across the executive office of the president—points of contact who have “space” in their portfolios—and we have good relationships with all of them.
What we’re trying to do with the Space Council is have a unity of effort that recognizes these different aspects of national power—national security, commercial, diplomatic, scientific—and how they affect each other, to the extent that we have, say, more international cooperation on exploration. That actually opens up opportunities—for achieving our diplomatic objectives, for leveraging the commercial sector more—which can get us more efficiencies, so that we can do more science and exploration at less cost than what might have otherwise been historically the case. These things all feed on each other and relate to each other. Everybody has separate responsibilities, but that perception of a need for a unity of effort is in part what I think the president and the vice president are intending.
You brought up diplomacy, international collaboration and working with the commercial sector, and that all seems to come together in Vice Pres. Pence’s recent announcement that NASA will be returning humans to the surface of the moon, shifting away from the Obama-era policy that favored crewed missions to asteroids and to Mars. What motivated that decision?
This is an update to the existing national space policy directive issued by Pres. Obama in 2010. And as such [sending humans to] Mars is still there—that is still the horizon goal, and hasn’t been eliminated. The reason we chose a return to the moon is because this reflects the president’s and vice president’s sense of what’s in the national interest. I became very much a critic of the Mars and asteroid–oriented policy, but not because I think Mars and asteroids aren’t great missions—they are. They are inspiring, and they offer some great science. But they were so ambitious that they really didn’t provide opportunities for international or commercial partnerships, and therefore I would argue they were actually contrary to U.S. national interests. And the reason we do space is not simply to do it, but to advance U.S. national interests.
The nature of leadership in space is very different than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, when we last went beyond low Earth orbit with the Apollo missions. Back then it was about showing leadership by doing things no other country could do. That’s still a factor today. But now the measure of leadership is how many people want to work with you, how many people want to be part of your team, right? If we want to be a global leader in space exploration today, we need to have projects that are both challenging and realistic—but which also allow for meaningful international partnership and private sector participation: building components, delivering cargo, providing services of various kinds. An architecture that returns to the moon, then on to Mars, offers those opportunities because it is more in alignment with where industry is and where our international partners are.
This reflects where the space community has been going and has wanted to go for some time. There are lots of countries that haven’t been to the moon. We haven’t been to the [surface of the] moon since the last Apollo mission in 1972. And we’re already seeing private sector proposals for doing things there. NASA has to be rethinking things—and they have been—but now they’re cleared to do that in a more concrete manner. The vice president wants NASA to come back with specific plans. These ideas have been bubbling around for quite some time, and now they’re coming out more clearly in the open. We’re hopefully going to see them become more concrete in the year ahead as people take stock of this change in direction.
Speaking of going back to the moon, rethinking things and engaging more with the private sector, NASA is spending billions of dollars developing its own heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, as the centerpiece for future exploration activities beyond low Earth orbit. But private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are pursuing more reusable heavy-lift vehicles of their own that may be less expensive to build and operate. Is there room for public-private partnership there, and what might that look like?
Heavy-lift rockets are strategic national assets, like aircraft carriers. There are some people who have talked about buying heavy-lift as a service as opposed to owning and operating, in which case the government would, of course, have to continue to own the intellectual properties so it wasn’t hostage to any one contractor. One could imagine this but, in general, building a heavy-lift rocket is no more “commercial” than building an aircraft carrier with private contractors would be.
In the past, funding for NASA’s science missions has suffered when the agency is directed to shifting budgetary resources toward tasks like building new rockets and spacecraft for astronauts. What is your strategy for preserving balance between the agency’s human exploration program and its diverse science missions?
Well, let’s also mention that imbalances can occur within NASA’s science community. You can see situations where one particular sector—whether it be Earth science or planetary science, depending on the year you’re looking at—started doing more at the expense of others, like heliophysics or aeronautics. And particular projects like the James Webb Space Telescope have had a big impact on the astrophysics budget line. And so what we consider first of all is, are we following the scientific priorities laid out [by each sector]? Now we’re obviously never able to do all those priorities—there’s never enough money to do everything—but first of all, are you looking at those and trying to comply with them? Then the second thing you look for in balancing among the different sectors is the health of the underlying community. That is, it’s not just a matter of how much money you’re spending, but also whether new researchers are able to come in and get funding to make important contributions.
In that regard neither NASA’s budget nor human space exploration is really the primary threat or problem. The larger problem is the pressure on all nondefense discretionary spending, and the resulting need for larger entitlement reform and for tax reform. Because it’s not a matter of some zero-sum game between scientific sectors or between exploration, engineering and technology development. The larger problem is that our ability to invest in innovation, to invest in the future, is under tremendous pressure on account of all our nondefense discretionary spending. This is a problem both the Congress and the executive branch have been struggling with.
One of the ways to cope with this—not to solve it—is to look for synergies between exploration and science. So for example, let’s look at the “Deep Space Gateway,” a space station near the moon, which NASA has proposed. What kinds of astrophysics or lunar science might be done using that? If we’re looking at doing a Mars atmospheric entry probe, NASA’s aeronautics people could have instruments onboard that would give them beneficial information for their hypersonics research. So breaking down some of the traditional divisions between these entities is helpful; making sure we’re tracking each community’s priorities is really important; and thinking about their underlying health is critical because you don’t want to go down a path that you know makes an entire field unviable. But the far larger issue, I would argue, is not one of space policy issue but rather of tax policy and entitlement reform.
Looking forward four years or eight years from now, what do you hope will be the National Space Council’s greatest accomplishment during your tenure as executive secretary?
I hope that the habit of thinking about space as a vital aspect of national power and of national interest becomes more routine across all sectors of policymaking. This requires getting people out of their “swim lanes,” so they can think about space in a more integrative way as opposed to strictly seeing it as a national security issue or as a science issue.
In terms of more tangible outcomes, I’d like to see a stronger and more vibrant commercial space community that has been able to take advantage of regulatory reform and relief. I’d like to see the U.S. capitalizing on a lot of those newly opened opportunities and leading the world in commercial space industry growth. And on exploration and science, I’d like to make sure the U.S. is still a global leader in science exploration, and that our astronauts are operating beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since 1972—but that we’re doing it with a bigger community of commercial and international partners. If we can get past policymaking divisions, if we can get smarter with regulation on our industries and make our going out into deep space more of a team effort, then I think it will be time well spent.