TCS Daily

A Space Program vs. the Moral Equivalent of a Space Program

By Rand Simberg - November 1, 2004 12:00 AM

Even in the best of times, humanity's future in the cosmos is a less-than-compelling campaign issue. In a wartime election, it's not on the radar screen at all. That's too bad, because over the long term, future humans, both on planet and off, are likely to view early twenty-first century space policy as much more relevant to their lives, and even existence, than the more-contentious current issues of war and peace, health care, and the economy. I can easily imagine an off-planet society in which history classes teach that Lyndon Baines Johnson was a minor American president during the von Braun era.

That said, space (perhaps appropriately) is a minor issue in the current campaign, even more so than usual, and the tenor of the times are such that even fewer than the usual minuscule numbers will make it one upon which they will actually base their vote. Both campaigns know this, as evidenced by the fact that neither of them discuss it on the stump. In fact, President Bush made a campaign trip recently to the Kennedy Space Center, with famous Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin in tow, and made no mention of his new space initiative from last January.

Nonetheless, for those few who do care, there are differences between the actual Bush space policy and a potential Kerry one that are I think significant, not only for their potential impact on our prospects for getting off the planet, but also for what they tell us about the respective candidates' vision and philosophy.

There was little predicting what Texas Governor George W. Bush would do in space policy as president. While his father had issued an abortive call for renewed flights to the Moon and Mars in 1989 (the initiative was brought down by a Democrat-controlled Congress, and a recalcitrant NASA bureaucracy and administrator -- an act for which he was later fired by the first Bush administration), there was nothing in his own history by which to judge. Some space enthusiasts were concerned by the fact that he had never even visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston as governor (though in point of fact, there's little reason for a governor to visit federal facilities in his state).

But now, as on all other issues, President Bush has a four-year space policy record on which to run. His initial goal for NASA was to bring in a new administrator, to set its accounts in order after years of program failures and cost overruns on the International Space Station (ISS), and confusion about what things actually were costing, due to faulty bookkeeping and inconsistent accounting rules between agency centers. Fixing this was Sean O'Keefe's primary charter, and vision was put on the back burner.

As with the war and September 11th, the president came into office with one set of space policies, only to confront a disaster that caused him to utterly revise them. When the Columbia was destroyed on February 1st, 2003, all of the previous policy assumptions had to be reexamined, and as described in the recent book by Keith Cowing and Frank Sietzen, New Moon Rising, they were.

On January 14th of this year, the president made a policy address to the nation at NASA headquarters in Washington, in which he stated that it was once again America's goal to send humans beyond low earth orbit -- that we were going back to the moon, and beyond, and that humanity was "headed into the cosmos." The Space Shuttle system would be retired as soon as it could be, after completion of ISS construction, at the end of the decade, and a new vehicle, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, would be designed to take astronauts beyond low earth orbit, to which they'd been confined since the last trip to the moon over three decades past.

Unlike John F. Kennedy's limited vision of placing "a man on the moon by the end of the decade," the President's is more expansive, going beyond our sister orb, and less time constrained. "This is not a race, but a journey," he proclaimed in January. The nation now has a clear policy goal of establishing permanent human presence in space, and not just in earth orbit, but on other bodies and perhaps in the open space of the solar system. It is in fact the most visionary space policy put forth by any president in history (which is, considering how paltry most presidential space visions have been, damning it with faint praise).

So in contrast, what is John Kerry's space policy?

Well, unlike Governor Bush in 2000, the Senator does have a past when it comes to space policy, and it was examined by Cowing and Sietzen this past summer in their book. They note that in eight separate votes in the nineties, the Senator voted to either reduce NASA or ISS funding, or to terminate the ISS program altogether.

Whether you think that this record represents good or bad space policy depends partially on your opinion of those programs, and partially on the Senator's motives in voting that way. It should be noted that in no case did he offer any alternative that would make any signal contribution to expanding our abilities as a space-faring nation. In fact, the Senator's views may be best represented by his comments in February in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, after being endorsed by former Senatorial colleague (and former astronaut) John Glenn in late February (a little over a month after the president had made his policy announcement):

"In the afterglow of pioneering astronaut John Glenn's endorsement, Sen. John Kerry said Wednesday that he would fight to create new high-paying jobs in America with the same vigor that President Kennedy demonstrated in launching the space program in the 1960s ... But Kerry said the U.S. government should not be talking about returning to the Moon or going to Mars -- missions proposed by President Bush. Rather, he said, leaving his prepared speech, 'We need to go to the Moon right here on Earth' by creating high-paying jobs of the future and making sure that 'young Americans in uniform are never held hostage' to Middle East oil.'"

In other words, like Jimmy Carter's energy program, he wants the moral equivalent of a space program.

But hang on! Remembering that this is John Kerry, of whom it can be said that if you don't like his policy, just wait a few minutes, let's roll the tape forward to this past summer, in June, when he at least talked about a space program as something that, well, accomplishes things in space, rather than creating high-paying jobs and releasing us from Middle-Eastern bondage:

"NASA is an invaluable asset to the American people and must receive adequate resources to continue its important mission of exploration...However, there is little to be gained from a 'Bush space initiative' that throws out lofty goals, but fails to support those goals with realistic funding."

There's a familiar note here. He offers no policy of his own, just criticism of the Bush policy.

There's more.

Kerry said that the most immediate impact of the Bush plan is that NASA's resources are being stretched "even further than they were before the Columbia tragedy," forcing NASA to make unpopular choices like canceling a space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA is currently seeking industry proposals for servicing Hubble robotically, but space agency officials have made clear that the highest priority of such a mission is attaching a module to Hubble that can be used to guide the space telescope safely into the ocean at the end of its life.

I'll be charitable and merely say that the Senator is uninformed. The Hubble servicing mission wasn't impacted by budgets, or the president's new initiative -- it was a result of risk aversion on the part of NASA, which, after Columbia, didn't want to send another orbiter to an orbit from which no rescue was possible.

But to a serious space policy analyst, here's the most frightening part:

Kerry also defended the space legacy of former U.S. President Bill Clinton -- the last Democrat to occupy the White House. Although the Clinton Administration cut the space agency's funding, Kerry said NASA still managed to launch and land dozens of shuttle flights, including three servicing trips to Hubble. Kerry also credited policies pursued under the Clinton Administration with cutting in half the time and money needed to develop space missions, including missions to Mars.

Waxing rhapsodic about the disastrous Clinton years in space doesn't instill confidence in this observer. Unfortunately, I'm further uninspired by the fact that his space policy advisors, like his foreign and defense policy advisors, seem to be Clinton retreads.

But perhaps I'm being unfair. According to some, we're not supposed to consider Senator Kerry's past when deciding whether to vote for him -- after all, we were supposed to wipe his anti-defense slate clean after he saluted the nation and belatedly reported for duty at this summer's convention -- we are only to listen to what he tells us now. So what does Senator John F. Kerry, Version Fall (actually, make that late October, to try to pin him down) 2004, think about space?

Well, he released a written space policy document, of sorts, the other day (which is unfortunately conflated with aeronautics policy, so it's a jumble of air and space, and NASA and the FAA), which is probably the best we're going to get before we head into the voting booth on Tuesday.

I haven't the space here to dissect it in all its glory, but it's rife with policy non-sequiturs and false choices, and vague in specifics, other than calling for "balance," and making the meaningless pledge of "assigning appropriate priority to all NASA programs" (we're presumably supposed to trust, or hope, that Senator Kerry's priorities are ours). The word "Bush" appears in it nine times, by my count, and there are zero occurrences of the words "shuttle" or "station." This is not a policy document -- it's a campaign document, and like most Kerry campaign documents, it's a pledge to be the un-Bush, no further details necessary.

But there's one more critical difference between the two choices next week.

Senator Kerry has based much of his campaign (when he's not talking about the fact that he served in Vietnam) on his internationalist credentials, and this shows once again in the language of his "space policy" in which he amusingly lambastes the president once more for his "unilateralist" approach by not inviting other countries to join us on our adventures into the solar system (a false charge, by the way). He joins the transnational progressivists in denouncing our unwillingness to sign on to or stay in damaging treaties like Kyoto, or the International Criminal Court, or the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

But one of the major roadblocks to space development is the lack of off-planet property rights, and the socialist mindset engendered by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the US is a signatory. I and others have called for renegotiation of that treaty to make it more friendly to human rights and free enterprise off world. Surprisingly (though I think that the timing is coincidence), in the closing days of the campaign, the Bush administration seems to be considering just that. Can anyone imagine a nuanced, diplomatic, French-nuzzling Kerry administration even contemplating such a thing, let alone actually doing it?

Me, neither.

Opening up a new frontier requires boldness, not remaining with entrenched stasist interests, and the conservatism of the failed space policy past. This administration has recognized that, and demonstrated it with radical new policy, even if it doesn't (yet) go as far as I'd like (e.g., stronger inclusion of private enterprise in the delivery of humans to orbit). Disregarding any other issues in this election, if you're one of those rare people to whom space, and our future in it, is a voting issue, then there's only one choice this year. As on many other issues, the president may leave much to be desired in space policy, but his opponent would be awful, because he offers nothing positive, or inspiring in any way. TCS columnist Glenn Reynolds has asked whether when it comes to space, we want to be a frontier, or France. In this respect as in others, Senator Kerry remains the French candidate, and if a John Kerry presidency were to somehow turn out to be the time that we finally start moving out into the universe as a species, it will almost certainly be despite his space policy, not because of it.

Rand Simberg is a consultant and entrepreneur in commercial space, space tourism, and internet security. He publishes a weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.


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