The History Behind the Long-Dead Space Council Trump Wants to Revive

The new administration plans to bring back a committee that has tried over the years to guide policy—with mixed results.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The Trump administration is planning for the future of the space program by throwing it back to the ’90s.

Vice President Mike Pence said this week that President Trump will, “in very short order,” bring back a high-level advisory council on space activities that has been dead for nearly 25 years. The remarks were the first public confirmation by the White House that the administration wants to resurrect the National Space Council, an idea first floated by Trump’s policy advisers a month before he was elected. Pence teased the council at the end of a signing ceremony Tuesday in the Oval Office for the first NASA authorization bill in seven years, a piece of mostly symbolic legislation that lays out the space agency’s long-term directives, like going to Mars.

So, what exactly is a space council?

The National Space Council was last active for four years starting in 1989, during the administration of George H.W. Bush, and before that existed in some form or another starting in 1958, when NASA was created. The motivation for using the council, housed inside the office of the president, was always the same: People close to the president, in the administration or Congress, felt it necessary to establish some kind of centralized authority at the top of the chain to guide and govern policymaking in space matters. The nation’s space activities have always been spread across a host of federal agencies, such as NASA, the Defense Department, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and, as space exploration moves deeper into the private sector, the Commerce and Transportation departments. An interagency body, the thinking went, would help coordinate space efforts across the civilian, military, national security, and intelligence realms. A project manager to manage all the other project managers.

“Space policy is uncoordinated within the federal government,” Trump’s advisers wrote in an op-ed in SpaceNews in October. A national council would “assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests.”

The council has had mixed results over the course of its on-again, off-again existence. At its core, such a council is another layer of bureaucracy, something people at NASA will tell you the space agency already has enough of. In the last nearly 60 years, the council has been expanded, downsized, ignored, deactivated, and resurrected. The Trump administration has plenty of history to look back on to determine whether it’s effective or not.

The council was first created during Dwight Eisenhower’s administration by the same legislation that birthed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, months after the Russians launched Sputnik into orbit. The National Aeronautics and Space Council, as it was known then, included the NASA administrator, a few cabinet secretaries, and some officials handpicked by the president. According to space-policy historians, Eisenhower didn’t see the point of the council and wanted to kill it before he left office, but Lyndon Johnson, then in the Senate, persuaded him to keep it.

The council saw its first real test under John F. Kennedy, when the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit and the United States into a frantic scramble to catch up. Kennedy instructed Johnson to create “an overall survey of where we stand in space,” according to a comprehensive history by John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University who founded the school’s Space Policy Institute in 1987. At that point, the council had just one staff member. Some quick hires and one final report later, and Kennedy had his idea for a mission to put a man on the moon.

The staff of the council grew, but Kennedy rarely used it after that initial brainstorm, relying instead on advice from the NASA chief and his science adviser. Johnson, despite being a champion of its creation, ignored the council, too. At the start of his second term, Richard Nixon sought to abolish it, saying that “basic policy issues in the United States space effort have been resolved, and the necessary interagency relationships have been established,” according to Logsdon. The council continued to languish in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, overlooked in favor of other advisory bodies inside the White House or the larger, fragmented network of federal agencies that worked on space matters. In 1988, when Reagan learned that the president-elect, the elder Bush, favored the existence of the council, he scrapped his plans to gut it, according to a history of the council by Dwayne Day, a space historian and senior program officer at National Research Council, where he has directed studies for NASA.

The first Bush administration marked the beginning of the space council’s short-lived glory days. The council came up with a new and expensive space-exploration plan, which proposed building an orbital space station, returning humans to the moon, and eventually sending them to Mars. But the hype eventually deflated, and Bill Clinton deactivated the council in 1993 as part of a campaign promise to shrink the office of the president. Barack Obama said during his campaign that he would restore the council and run it himself, but the promise never materialized once he took office.

The council has sometimes experienced friction with NASA. James Webb, the former NASA administrator and namesake of a giant gold space telescope, reportedly disliked having council staff separate him from Kennedy. Over the years, some NASA officials felt council staff tried to meddle in the space agency’s daily operations and exerted too much control over policymaking. According to historians, in 1992, council staff convinced Bush to fire the NASA chief because they thought he would resist their ideas. As is the case in many bureaucratic environments, the dysfunction of the council had little do with national interest or policy, but with office politics.

The council, Logsdon concluded,“never became the major, much less the sole, means for developing a comprehensive and coordinated national approach to space.” That doesn’t mean it was a completely bad idea. The council’s supporters over the years saw it as a way to get more attention and funding from the people who call the shots, mostly thanks to its proximity to the president and his advisers.

But for the council to be influential, Day explained, the decision-makers have to actually want its advice. The council withers under presidents and vice presidents who have little interest in space, and gets at least a shot at growth under those who do. Trump has so far spoken about space exploration in broad, sweeping terms. “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream,” he said during an address to Congress last month. Pence, who would chair the council, recently met with Buzz Aldrin, but both the White House and the astronaut declined to give details about what they talked about. For a new administration, the promise of establishing order and streamlining policymaking is a typical one. The pledge to restore the National Space Council gives the appearance of being on top of things right from the get-go. The danger is in the long run, should history repeat itself.