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Space policymaking in the United States
The overall authority on space policy in the United States lies with the executive branch. The president gets to decide the overall direction of the space program, but he usually relies on his administration for advice. At the White House, he consults with the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, while federal agencies, such as NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, and many more assist him from the outside.
Most presidents in the past have decided to articulate their policies in a document called the “National Space Policy” (NSP), which comprises policy guidance for the civil, commercial and national security space sectors. The most recent version was issued by the Obama administration on the 28th of June 2010, roughly one and a half years into his presidency, which was rather fast compared to his predecessors. In terms of human space exploration, the current NSP states:
“The Administrator of NASA shall [s]et far-reaching exploration milestones. By 2025, begin crewed mission beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid. By the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.”2
These provisions have been translated by NASA into the development of a heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a crewed spacecraft for deep space exploration, called Orion; the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which foresees a robotic mission to place an asteroid in orbit around the moon for astronauts to visit3; and NASA’s Journey to Mars, a step-by-step strategy to send humans to the red planet.
Another, more short-term oriented instrument for the executive branch to influence space policy is through presidential budget requests, which are annual proposals sent to Congress that detail how much the president wants to spend on each federal agency, including on NASA and its individual programs. These are, however, only suggestions, and they can be overruled by the second major actor in US space policymaking.
The US Congress, comprising both the House of Representatives and the Senate, has two major tools to shape space policy: authorization bills and appropriation bills. In short, the former type tells NASA how it can spend its money, while the later tells NASA how much money it can actually spend; or, as Marcia Smith from Space Policy Online explains:
“Authorization bills provide policy direction, authorize (permit) agencies to start new programs, and recommend funding. They do not, however, actually provide any money. Only appropriations bills provide money.”4
These bills are being discussed in specialized, thematic committees and subcommittees. Responsibility for NASA authorization bills lies with the House Science, Space & Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee, as well as with the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee and its Space, Science & Competitiveness Subcommittee. Appropriation bills for NASA are decided by the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriation Subcommittees of both the House and the Senate5.
While the committees discuss authorizations and appropriations in the context of the presidential budget request, they ultimately make their own decisions, regardless of whether the administration agrees or not. In this way, responsibilities in the space policymaking process are fairly evenly divided between the executive branch and the legislative branch of government. There are obviously even more actors involved (such as industry, academia, etc.), but they have fewer formal competencies compared to the administration and Congress, and discussing them would go beyond the scope of this blog.
Now that we have established the main actors and processes involved in space policymaking in the US, let’s take a look at the transition process.
The transition process
Even before the transition, there is a general anticipation of the changes that are to come, and presidential candidates usually share their ideas on issues they consider important on the campaign trail. Unfortunately for the space community, space rarely plays a big – if any – role during the campaign. This time, both candidates replied to a set of questionnaires, one on space6 and one on science with a question dedicated to space7, but these are usually handled by campaign staffers and most likely never reached the candidates themselves. In the final weeks before the election, the Trump campaign tasked two of its senior policy advisors to draft a space policy, which was published in a series of op-eds on the Space News website. The first one focused on civil and commercial space8, while the second one focused on national security space9. However, these offered only some very preliminary ideas of what the new administration’s space policy might look like, and even Robert Walker, one of the two authors of the policy, later said that there was “a lot of bones and not a lot of flesh on it”10.
With the election over, the 09th of November marked the beginning of the transition period, where the outgoing administration hands over all governmental affairs to the incoming administration. This means that the incoming administration assembles and assigns small groups of people to federal agencies, including NASA. They are formally known as “agency review teams” but more commonly referred to as “transition teams” or “landing teams”. These teams are not meant to install new policies, but rather to collect as much information as possible to advise the new administration. Lori Garver, who led the NASA transition team for the Obama administration in 2008/9, described the team’s activities as the following:
“A NASA internal transition team had prepared numerous transition books filled with information about programs, projects, budgets, etc. We divided up responsibilities and poured through the documents that would inform our reports. We highlighted issues that would need to be handled in the first 100 days, first year and first term.”11
The transition team for NASA featured eight people this time, coming from a diverse background such as academia, industry, the military and NASA itself12. It was led by Chris Shank, who previously worked as a staffer at the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology, and at NASA before that13. Following the inauguration on the 20th of January, the transition team formally dissolved and was replaced by a “beachhead team”, which continues the transition efforts and whose members were appointed by the new administration, some of which were drawn from the original transition team14.
Another aspect of the transition is the change of leadership at NASA. In federal agencies, there are generally two types of employees: career bureaucrats and political appointees. The first category describes those who enter government service early during their career and work their way up the bureaucracy. They are supposed to be apolitical and serve under both Republican and Democratic administrations. They carry the institutional memory of the federal agencies and allow government to continue functioning during presidential transitions. The second category describes those who get appointed to their positions by the President and therefore “serve at his pleasure”. They usually occupy the senior leadership positions in government where they are tasked to implement the administration’s policies, and they are expected to resign from their positions when a new administration takes office, unless explicitly asked to stay.
In the case of NASA, the two most senior leadership positions are that of administrator and deputy administrator, most recently held by Charles Bolden und Dava Newman, respectively. Being Obama administration appointees, they resigned on the 20th of January, the day of the inauguration of the new president, at which point the most senior career bureaucrats, Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot and Deputy Associate Administrator Lesa Roe, took over the positions of acting administrator and acting deputy administrator, respectively15. They will hold these positions until the Trump administration nominates and the Senate confirms the two new NASA leaders, at which point Lightfoot and Roe return to their former positions.
So what will the future hold for NASA and human space exploration? At this point, there is simply no way to tell yet. The Walker/Navarro op-eds can serve as a starting point for some speculation, and the news outlet POLITICO obtained internal documents that were floated around by the new administration16, showcasing some of their preliminary deliberations which include a greater push towards commercialization of space as well as a renewed focus on the Moon. One might even try to read some meaning into Trump’s inaugural address, where he vowed to “unlock the mysteries of space”. But the hard truth is – and I know that must sound like an extremely boring conclusion to this article – that we simply have to wait and see. The Trump administration will need some time to settle into their new roles, fill the open positions in the federal bureaucracy and then start to look at policy issues, including space policy.
But fear not: If you are eager to learn more about how US space policy will be shaped under president Trump, there are two events to look forward to in the upcoming months: First, the Trump administration will soon send its first presidential budget request to Congress which will give some indication as to how US space policy will evolve. In terms of human space exploration, it should be interesting to see whether they will propose radical changes to existing programs, such as SLS, Orion or ARM, or whether they want to continue funding NASA at levels similar to the previous administration.
Second, president Trump will probably name his nominees for NASA administrator and deputy administrator soon. Both positions require confirmation by the Senate before they can take office, and this involves a public hearing at which the nominees will be asked about their qualifications and policy views. This could also give some indication as to where NASA might be going in terms of human space exploration. These hearings are usually livestreamed and the nominees upload their prepared remarks, so that anyone interested can follow these events.
But in the end, space policymaking involves more than just the executive branch of government, and therefore, despite a new president taking office, a certain degree of continuity at NASA can be expected. It will nonetheless be interesting to see where president Trump wants to take the US space program. We will certainly be watching, and hope that you will, too.
Author: Maximilian Betmann joined the OeWF prior to the AMADEE-15 mission and has been a member of the media team ever since. Due to his studies of political science, he writes about space policy issues from time to time.Sources:
- 1) Wilson (2016). Journey to Mars. NASA, 30 September 2016. https://www.nasa.gov/topics/journeytomars/index.html
- 2) White House (2010). National Space Policy of the United States of America. 28 June 2010. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/national_space_policy_6-28-10.pdf
- 3) Mahoney (2016). Asteroid Redirect Mission. NASA, 07 September 2016. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/asteroids/initiative/index.html
- 4) Smith (2015). What’s a markup?: Answers to that and other mysteries of the legislative process. SpacePolicyOnline.com Fact Sheet, 03 January 2015.
- 5) Smith (2017). Committee Rosters for 115th Congress Fill Out – UPDATE. SpacePolicyOnline.com, 16 February 2017. https://www.spacepolicyonline.com/news/committee-rosters-for-115th-congress-fill-out
- 6) SpaceNews (2016). Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump weigh in on U.S. space policy. 10 October 2016. https://www.spacenewsmag.com/feature/u-s-election-2016-hillary-clinton-and-donald-trump-weigh-in-on-u-s-space-policy/
- 7) ScienceDebate.org (2016). Presidential Science Debate 2016. 20 September 2016. https://sciencedebate.org/20answers#16
- 8) Walker, Navarro (2016a). Trump’s space policy reaches for Mars and the stars. Space News, 19 October 2016. https://spacenews.com/trumps-space-policy-reaches-for-mars-and-the-stars/
- 9) Walker, Navarro (2016b). Donald Trump’s “peace through strength” space vision. Space News, 24 October 2016. https://spacenews.com/op-ed-donald-trumps-peace-through-strength-space-doctrine/
- 10) Foust (2016a). Next steps for space policy. The Space Review, 14 November 2016. https://www.thespacereview.com/article/3105/1
- 11) Garver (2016). Transition fever. Space News, 26 April 2016. https://spacenews.com/op-ed-transition-fever/
- 12) The Trump-Pence Transition Team (2017). Agency Landing Teams. 19 January 2017. https://greatagain.gov/agency-landing-teams-54916f71f462#.9biwtb539
- 13) Foust (2016b). The people and policy shaping NASA’s future under Trump. Space News, 29 December 2016. https://spacenews.com/the-people-and-policy-shaping-nasas-future-under-trump/
- 14) Foust (2017). Business as usual at NASA two into the new administration. Space News, 06 February 2017. https://spacenews.com/business-as-usual-at-nasa-two-weeks-into-new-administration/
- 15) NASA (2017). NASA Organization Structure. https://www.nasa.gov/about/org_index.html
- 16) Bender (2017). Trump advisers’ space plan: To moon, Mars and beyond. POLITICO, 09 February 2017. https://www.politico.com/story/2017/02/donald-trump-space-war-234829
This article is available in: German
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