National Space Council’s ‘Think Tank’ Starts Work

An advisory group dubbed the “think tank” for the National Space Council formally kicked off its work June 19 with a broad but vague mandate to study space policy issues.

The Users’ Advisory Group (UAG) of the National Space Council held its first meeting at NASA Headquarters, a five-hour “inaugural and, quite frankly, organizational session” of the committee, in the words of its chairman, retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Ellis.

The UAG was included in the executive order signed by President Trump nearly a year ago reestablishing the space council, with members formally announced at the council’s second public meeting in February. Ellis noted that the prior incarnation of the National Space Council, during the administration of President George H.W. Bush more than a quarter-century ago, enabled the formation of a similar advisory group, but it never met.

At the UAG meeting, Ellis reaffirmed that the group is able to study any issue it deems important. “There are no red lines or issues that off the table,” he said. “If we think they need to be addressed, they are open to us.”

That could include the proposed establishment of a Space Force as a separate military branch, which President Trump announced at the June 18 space council meeting. During the meeting, UAG members asked Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, what input the administration sought from the group regarding the Space Force.

Pace responded that the four major issues regarding the Space Force were “people, money, acquisition and warfighting,” but didn’t elaborate on specific topics in those areas the council had questions about. He added that he expected to “see something in the FY20 budget as a start in that direction” towards establishing a Space Force.

Ellis asked Pace for topics for “quick inputs” that that UAG could provide the council. Pace offered five potential topics, including strengthening public engagement, increasing commercialization activities in low-Earth orbit, accelerating a return to the moon, identifying opportunities for international cooperation versus competition, and strengthening the relationship between science and exploration.

No clear topics for consideration by the UAG emerged from its discussions, which also included presentations by the Commerce Department on regulatory reform and by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on the agency’s activities.

Ellis said that the UAG will establish six subcommittees, on exploration and discovery, national security space, economic development and the industrial base, technology and innovation, outreach and education, and space policy and international engagement. Chairs for those committees have been established, but UAG members won’t be assigned to those committees before next month.

There are also changes to the UAG membership since Pence announced the “candidates” to serve on the group in February. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former NASA Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden were on that original list, but are not on the current roster. The Wall Street Journal reported June 17, and other industry sources have since confirmed, that conflict of interest concerns kept both from joining the UAG.

Others noted the lack of young people on the UAG despite concerns about workforce and public engagement; only one member is under the age of 30. One “thirtysomething-year-old” offered during a brief public comment period to volunteer to help the group. Ellis turned down the request, directing the person to “generational or space interest organizations.”

Other members of the UAG said they could offer perspectives from young professionals for the group’s deliberations. “I think I represent a pretty young group of folks at SpaceX, so I’m happy to carry their voice forward,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, a UAG member.

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