The administration of President Donald Trump revived the National Space Council earlier this year after a 24-year absence, but what it will actually do remains cloudy. Besides the slightly strange, repeated remarks about going back to the moon, the administration also wants to empower the commercial sector and give the private spaceflight industry more influence and presence over what the nation as a whole does with space. Trump’s resurrection of the National Space Council is supposed to be a conduit in which companies like SpaceX can wield more influence over the shape of U.S. space policy.
So it’s a bit odd that Trump turned to Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, to lead the new NSC. That’s because Pace has a track record of skepticism for having NASA turn over projects the commercial sector, specifically SpaceX.
In a new review of the developing private space industry, CQ Press published some interesting quotes from Pace in which he describes some of his thoughts on Musk and his company. “Elon Musk sat in my office in 2002 and told me he’d have 10 launches a year by 2006,” Pace said. “I’m still looking at my watch.”
As reported by Ars Technica, Pace made that comment this year — in what is almost certainly the most successful period of SpaceX’s history. The company is on track for an 11th successful launch in just a few days.
Pace conceded to Ars Technica SpaceX has proven itself a capable spaceflight party. “That comment is accurate and it was true for years,” he said. “In 2017, it became obsolete—which was an outstanding achievement for SpaceX.”
Part of Pace’s doubts seem to stem from how badly SpaceX has managed to meet so many of its deadlines over the last decade. Nowhere is this clearer than in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, in which SpaceX (along with Boeing) are developing commercial spaceflight vehicles to allow the United States to once again use American spacecraft to send astronauts to the International Space Station and low Earth orbit.
Those vehicles were supposed to be ready for human spaceflight years ago. It’s 2017 and we’re still waiting.
In general, the CQ Press report emphasizes Pace’s preference for a slower, more methodical approach to spaceflight development. Pace has never been a strong supporter of the Commercial Crew Program, and was not shy of criticizing the Obama administration for pushing forward such a plan.
“I think [the CCP] is somewhat dangerous,” he said in 2012. “Accelerating the rules means that you will be taking risks by potentially putting people or high value cargo on before you’ve established a real track record. And I think that’s the approach that has a lot of people worried, particularly those of us who remember the results of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.”
It’s unclear to what extent Pace might come into the NSC with a fresh perspective and work to move forward Trump’s desire to see the commercial industry play a larger role in U.S space policy, or whether Pace may situate himself as a dissenting voice which tries to slow things down.