Anyone can shoot for the stars, but the Trump White House seems to be following a formula that will allow the United States to aim with accuracy.
To make America “think big once again,” President Donald Trump signed an executive order in June reviving the National Space Council from its quarter-century-long hibernation. While this was a smart move, it was not until this month that his administration demonstrated how intent it is on increasing the efficiency and progress of American spaceflight.
October 5th marked the first meeting of the reformed Council. Vice President Pence, the council’s new chairman, boldly said that although “we have ceded ground,” the revival of the council will make “America…lead in space once again.” The flowery rhetorical language of Pence’s opening remarks might not have meant much to skeptics, but what immediately followed his speech should have caused some to reconsider their presuppositions.
After the Vice President’s speech, the Council solicited consultation from a diverse panel of witnesses — from tried-and-true companies that have been working with the United States since the very beginning, to upstarts that have brought new life and vigor to our nation’s space progress.
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If this open, inclusive set-up becomes the norm, it will set the Trump administration’s NASA policy apart from that of previous administrations. Maintaining a watchful eye on the progress of every aerospace manufacturer – new and old – has historically not always been done, but many would argue it is the best way to lift the United States back into the world’s intergalactic spotlight.
Inviting Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith and SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell was undoubtedly the right thing to do. These new companies have done a lot for the industry in recent years, and they will likely continue to innovate and reduce the costs of missions in the years to come. However, while every qualified company should be part of the administration’s deliberative process, no business – whether an upstart or a more experienced player – should be given complete control.
Some tech enthusiasts would like to see Blue Origin and SpaceX be NASA’s exclusive rein holders. This decision would be irresponsible on both a security and fiscal front. Many innovators optimistically promise the moon. They often deliver, but sometimes not on time or per the original parameters.
Although companies like SpaceX are maintaining a progressively better track record year after year, the extent of their failures should give cause for pause. In 2015, the company had a rocket explode during a cargo launch to the space station. In 2016, a rocket and satellite were destroyed during another flare-up. This year, it had to abort a space station docking due to navigation problems. Reuters reported in February that SpaceX has a logjam of about 70 missions.
This importance of balancing the old with the new extends far beyond the realm of space. Take 18F, an office within the General Services Administration (GSA), created in 2014 as a result of problems with the Healthcare.gov website to “simplify the government’s digital services” by providing “cutting-edge support to reduce cost and improve service.” Things did not end up turning out as initially thought. According to the GSA, the company has lost over $31.6 million to date, missing its yearly financial targets by large margins. This year, the GSA found more instances of the agency not adhering to security protocols.
Failing is not always a bad thing; it is often part of the process of thinking big, and even the most successful actors have done so – from other aerospace manufacturers in their earlier stages of development to revolutionaries like Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers. The necessity of failure underscores the danger of relying too heavily on one company for national security needs, especially when that company is in the early stage of the learning curve.
Thankfully, the Trump administration seems to understand that being too dependent on a given provider is not smart policy. That is why last Thursday, Mike Pence solicited the opinions of all relevant actors – from the old heroes that have been around forever to the new players that are just getting their feet wet. It is also why the administration is in strong opposition to Section 1615, a provision of the NDAA that would limit the number of NASA’s future launch systems.
Hopefully, the unbiased structure of the first Council meeting will mirror the overall neutrality of the group itself. The success of America’s spaceflight and safeguarding of American taxpayers will depend on it.