TCS Daily

Missiles Over Rockets; NMD Trumps NASA.

By James Pinkerton - March 12, 2001 12:00 AM

If to govern is to choose, then President Bush made a clear choice in the budget he released two weeks ago; National Missile Defense (NMD) is a big winner, while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a mild loser. In the short run, this might be a disappointment to spaceniks, but in the long run, there's reason for optimism. New leadership at NASA will offer the embattled agency the chance to make a new start with Bush budgeters.

In his fiscal outline released two weeks ago, Bush announced that he wants to spend $14.5 billion on NASA for fiscal year 2002, a 2 percent increase over this year. Yet that's half the proposed 4 percent increase in total discretionary federal spending, and less than half the 4.8 percent increase in defense spending. And the recommended $200 million increase in NASA's budget is dwarfed by the $2.6 billion increase in NMD spending.

To be sure, it's often a mistake to judge government programs by inputs alone. What matters, after all, is output. Mindful of improving productivity, Bush is proposing, for example, a simplification of the International Space Station -- plagued by $4 billion in overruns over the last five years -- and the privatization of some functions associated with the space shuttle and future launches.

Still, within the existing government framework, NASA is clearly taking a budgetary hit. While the Bush administration adds supports for a few ventures, such as Mars exploration, it withdraws funds for robot missions to Pluto and the sun. Indeed, in the wake of the new budget, NASA announced that it would stop funding the X-33 and X-34 rockets, two test vehicles that were intended to replace the aging space shuttles over the next 10-20 years.

To be sure, Bush's budget is consistent with his campaign promises. On May 22, 2000, the Republican candidate declared, "America must build effective missile defense, based on the best available options, at the earliest possible date." By contrast, he said little about space, not releasing a formal policy paper on NASA until late October.

Today, to the surprise of many early skeptics, Bush seems likely to succeed in getting a go-ahead on NMD. He and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld have demonstrated that when the United States commits itself to a course of action, the rest of the world is likely to go along; it's fun to be a superpower. The Europeans, for example, not so long ago staunch opponents of anything that smacked of "Star Wars," now seem to be mostly on board. And the Russians, who once maintained that any form of NMD would be a violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty -- if not an open invitation to World War III -- are now proposing their own variants on the idea.

Put simply, NMD is an idea whose time has come; even the Clinton administration conceded the danger posed by many nations, rogue and otherwise, that could be developing missile offense. Hence the obvious need for missile defense. Indeed, it's possible to look ahead a decade and see the U.S. leading some sort of Anti-Rogue Nation League, using perhaps a ship-based NMD system that could be deployed anywhere on the 70 percent of the earth's surface that is water. Most likely, such an entity would build upon NATO, but it could easily be expanded to include other U.S. allies.

The creation of such a global-security network, most likely depending on a "boost-phase" intercept system, would be a significant achievement on behalf of both American well-being and world peace. But from a space perspective, such a system, a compromise of sorts between the never-realized Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative and the real-world anti-Scud Patriot missile system, falls well short of what's possible and what's needed.

To put it another way, Bush's legacy is likely to be a "Low Frontier" system of earth-directed missiles, when spaceniks want, of course, a "High Frontier" of space-bound rockets.

The irony is that NASA's roots are in the Cold War; in the 1950s and 1960s, the space agency was central to the anti-Soviet effort, in terms of both developing American technology and trumpeting U.S. superiority. But then came the 1970s and detente, and NASA became less a tool of national competition and more a tool of international cooperation; since then, much of its budget has been devoted to various space stations and the costly shuttles needed to support them.

Of course, this is what many space enthusiasts, associated, for example, with the late Carl Sagan, dreamed of -- a post-nationalist NASA, holding hands toward a John Lennonish vision of global harmony and understanding. But even under Democratic presidents and Democratic Congresses, there wasn't much support for this vision, and so NASA, a hot shop in the 1960s, has stagnated for the last 30 years.

So since the space agency has drifted away from the center of national strategizing, it is the Pentagon, which of course makes no pretense of "Star Trek"-type idealism, that has moved in to fill that vacuum; the Air Force alone spent some $7 billion last year on space programs. The interservice U.S. Space Command, for example, based at Peterson AFB in Colorado, is a bureaucratic boom zone.

And if NASA doesn't quite know what to do with itself in the 21st century, slipping and sliding between various low-profile activities and objectives, the Space Command, or "Spacecom," sure does. It's out to win the wars of the future. Its "Vision for 2020" document includes, for instance, this gung-ho string of buzz words, masquerading as a mission statement: "U.S. Space Command - dominating the space dimension of U.S. military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict." Does NASA have anything to say that's as immediately compelling to federal decisionmakers?

So what to do? How to keep pro-space momentum, such as it is, going? Simple answer: If you can't fight 'em, join 'em. And so NASA must do what it takes to get back in the good graces of the Bush administration.

One such good-gracing opportunity is likely to come up soon. NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, who has run the agency since the last Bush administration, seems destined to leave. While few question his bureaucratic and scientific acumen, the mere fact that he kept his job through eight years of Bill Clinton makes him suspect to the current White House - as the paltry 2002 budget figures for his agency attest.

From the point of view of both NASA and the space community -- including, of course, the growing private satellite business, which can look ahead to the day when its orbiting assets will be vulnerable to space-based or ground-based attack -- the next administrator needs to be someone more in tune with Bush, Rumsfeld & Co.

So is that a formula for militarizing space? Sure it is. But such militarization is inevitable, as the Low Frontier of NMD is certain to be challenged by technological breakthroughs that escalate the missile threat and the anti-missile response. And so peace-loving countries will eventually arrive at the High Frontier of space-based defense.

In the long run, of course, humanity will eventually resume its idealistically questing push to the stars. And NASA is the natural spearhead for that renewed ascent.

But the long run is a series of short runs. And in the short run of the next few years, NASA can't afford to fall off the Bush bandwagon.

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