Why the U.S. Needs a Space Czar
Bureaucracy must keep up with the new space age.
When the idea of a Space Czar was mooted in 1960, NASA’s first administrator T. Keith Glennan retorted to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics that the White House was perfectly capable of coordinating the only two relevant federal agencies: NASA and the Department of Defense. But today, far more U.S. bureaucratic actors have interests and responsibilities in space policy. The challenges of our era — the accelerating privatization, commercialization, and militarization of space — require better coordination not only across the U.S. government, but between America and the world.
Retaining the White House’s National Space Council is an important step, but we can increase its Executive Secretary’s bureaucratic and diplomatic clout to make it more effective. A small change and a smart appointment can help. It’s time for a Space Czar.
We’re not the only ones who think so. Aerospace Corporation President and CEO Steve Isakowitz recently argued that the U.S. needs to implement the “whole of government” approach outlined in the National Space Strategy and establish “a national approach to space safety with clear lanes of authority,” because “responsibility remains fuzzy on emerging regulatory issues.” Other recent reports on U.S. space strategy similarly argue for a national “North Star vision” for space.
The root problem is that far more agencies than just NASA and DoD have interests in space. Several other federal agencies also exercise some amount of compartmentalized control, including the State Department Office of Space Affairs (housed in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs), the Office of Space Commerce, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and so forth. None leads a “whole of government” approach to space policy.
Yet the challenges of our current space era require coordination across disciplines, across agencies, and across national borders. For example, space traffic management has become more involved, as more and more entities begin to operate in space, requiring closer attention and organizational and technical adaptations to cope with more congestion. Increases in magnitude in the number of satellite operators now challenge the previous philosophy that, given the relative size of space to the small number of operators, they “could operate ‘Wild West’ style with few rules and fewer consequences.” Or take the problem of space debris. As some debris-removal systems can both clean up junk and act as anti-satellite weapons, their development and deployment require not just technical but diplomatic effort.
Or take explicit efforts to militarize space. China and Russia, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Secure World Foundation, are “pushing their own initiatives and attempting to seize the diplomatic initiative to advance their own interests” in the space domain. In this new geostrategic environment, calls for strengthened “space defense partnerships” have highlighted how cooperation with like-minded allies is key to a safe and secure space domain.
All of these problems and more require better coordination than current bureaucratic structures can provide. Some might point to the White House’s National Space Council — revived under Trump, recently announced for retention under Biden—as sufficient to the task. It almost is. The National Space Council helps to cut across agencies and includes space leaders across government — the NASA Administrator, the Secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce, and Transportation, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and more. It has a small staff and a civilian Executive Secretary, who along with the Chair (the Vice President) helps to run the Council. Presidents have had an on-again off-again relationship with versions of the council since 1958, with a mediocre history that one assessment warned would be repeated if there were a “a space advisory mechanism that is too cumbersome, too far removed from senior decisionmakers, or poorly staffed.”
As political scientists Justin Vaugh and José Villalobos have argued in Czars in the White House, “bureaucratic entities are less likely to neglect programs and policies if a central czar figure is charged with overseeing their development and implementation.” Those large agencies represented on the council, given the jurisdictional overlap on space, are “more likely to view a policy need primarily through their own organizational missions and position themselves in a defensive mode.” A more powerful Space Czar, in the form of a high-level appointment to the Executive Secretary, with increased diplomatic powers, could streamline the process and elevate the power of the inter-agency space council.
Czars, often, are less about formal powers than about bureaucratic clout, public messaging, and having the president’s ear. Appointing a well-known and high-level former official as Executive Secretary of the Space Council would partly help to achieve this and elevate space policy in both the eye of the public and the interagency bureaucracy. But we propose more. Formally giving the Space Czar the additional role of “Ambassador at Large” (akin to the two-hat role of the counter-terrorism coordinator) would help to further integrate domestic and foreign policy, for a true “whole of government approach” that recognizes the importance of global governance and cooperation to the space domain, increase the visibility and power of the role, all without disrupting what works already for the Council. Similar ambassadorial positions have become common for other emerging transnational issues, such as “cyber ambassadors” to track and participate in the many international processes to regulate cyberspace. It would also fit within the Biden administration’s opposition to “America First” and its emphasis on multilateralism and working with Allies and signal not just domestically, but internationally, its dedication to tackling space issues, the way John Kerry’s new position does for climate change.
On a simpler level, a space czar would simply have the time that the Vice President, who chairs the Space Council, and the other members of the council such as the Secretaries of State and Defense, and other space leaders, do not. As then-President Obama explained during the Ebola crisis, a czar was necessary because others coordinating the response were “also responsible for a whole bunch of other stuff” – they have full-time jobs.
Creating a Space Czar with diplomatic powers would reaffirm America’s diplomatic commitment to space and facilitate better projection of U.S. interests in multinational, bilateral, and public-private negotiations, meetings, and working groups on space (To name a few: the Conference on Disarmament, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, the recent U.S. push on the Artemis Accords, etc.). It would also signal to the world that the United States intends to continue to lead the world in space innovation—both technical and diplomatic. Just as the world’s climate negotiators read President-elect Biden’s high-level appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate as a signal that the Biden administration is serious about climate action, so the appointment of a space czar would show the world that the administration is also serious about the new Space Age.
After four years of disengagement with the multilateral order and international law, U.S. leadership in space, not just through the Space Force, would demonstrate that the new administration not only wants to patch up recent damages and re-engage with the global order, but also to expand that order to new domains, even beyond the globe.
Julia Ciocca is a Research Fellow at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania.
Lauren Kahn is a Research Fellow at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania.
Christian Ruhl is the Global Order Program Manager at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania.