White House Set to Unveil High-Level Council for Coordinating Space Policy

By Andy Pasztor Features Dow Jones Newswires

The White House is poised to revive a governmentwide policy council for space, to be headed by Vice President Mike Pence, with the goal of establishing closer coordination between civilian, military and budding commercial activities beyond the atmosphere.

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The announcement, slated to come later Friday, has long been anticipated by lawmakers and industry officials and was decided even before President Donald Trump was sworn in, according to people familiar with the details. But the administration still hasn't picked a nominee for other important space decision makers, including NASA administrator.

Initially, announcement of the executive order establishing a new National Space Council was supposed to be accompanied by some personnel decisions. Nonetheless, the anticipated move will provide top-level oversight of government space initiatives -- spanning both manned and unmanned programs -- while providing a single coordination point for matching priorities between the more than $19 billion annual budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Pentagon's larger overall spending blueprint. Many national-security spy satellites, experimental spacecraft and other space projects are highly classified and their budgets aren't public.

The earlier version of the council operated more than two decades ago during President George H.W. Bush's tenure in the White House

One of the council's primary missions is expected to be dealing with the bureaucratic logjam that has resulted in what many lawmakers and even Pentagon brass acknowledge are overly expensive launches of national-security satellites. NASA and the Pentagon currently are following independent road maps to build next-generation launchers, and critics contend there hasn't been enough effort to identify potential cost saving through closer cooperation.

In addition, the budding commercial space industry offers new opportunities for the government to reduce launch costs and eventually replace some existing spy satellites with smaller, much less expensive versions.

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Formation of the council as a formal focus for such deliberations also comes at a time the White House and the Pentagon are formulating plans to step up protection of U.S. space assets. Officials are working to devise new hardware, warfighting doctrine and organizational structures in response to aggressive moves by Russia, China and other nations challenging American supremacy in orbit.

For NASA, closer White House scrutiny could mean hard decisions to abandon some current programs to fit projected spending within likely flat budget ceilings in coming years. Despite a flurry of early interest by senior White House aides in changing civilian space policy, so far the administration has avoided major new programs and generally has maintained a status quo budget for NASA. Early on, White House aides expressed interest in melding commercial efforts with NASA's manned space exploration programs, but there has been scant movement in that direction.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 30, 2017 14:55 ET (18:55 GMT)