Thursday, August 19, 2010

Upside Down

Jeff Foust of the excellent Space Politics blog posted an article yesterday titled, "Space policy and topsy-turvy political philosophy". The gist of his article is the upside-down politics of commercial space.

Many Republicans would have you believe that they want less government and more privatization of government services, while they claim Democrats want big government and "socialism."

Yet those fighting President Obama's FY 2011 budget proposal that would invest in commercial space are mostly Republicans. Among them are Space Coast congressman Bill Posey and Alabama's U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, whose state hosts Marshall Space Center in Huntsville.

Certain Democrats have opposed the proposal as well, including Space Coast congresswoman Suzanne Kosmas, but at least Kosmas has supported efforts to diversify the local economy so that Space Coast no longer relies on government space as a major employer.

Many members of the House and Senate space subcommittees have viewed NASA's annual budget as a mechanism for sending pork to their districts, national priorities be damned. Their most recent effort is Congress taking it upon themselves to dictate to NASA the design for the next heavy-launch vehicle, as reported by Space Politics on August 15. If you look at the elements of the design, it specifies components that would be built by existing vendors in subcommittee members' home districts.

Such foolishness was responsible for the demise of "NASA's Constellation program, which also sought to direct pork to existing vendors. An August 2009 Government Accountability Office report titled Constellation Program Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case is Established" (the title says it all) noted that Constellation would "maximize the use of heritage hardware and established technology in order to reduce cost and minimize risk." Which, of course, means using existing vendors.

By emphasizing heritage technology, the Constellation program was designed to avoid problems associated with the prior shuttle replacement efforts, which were largely rooted in the desire to introduce vehicles that significantly advanced technologies. Thus far, however, the Constellation program has encountered daunting challenges in terms of design, testing, manufacturing, and poorly phased funding that have led the program to slip its target for a first crewed flight to no later than March 2015.

Shackled to obsolete technology, and to vendors in the districts of space subcommittee members, NASA in my opinion will never be able to deliver a robust program that delivers humans into space.

As I've noted before, nothing in the National Aeronautics and Space Act requires NASA to fly humans into space, to explore other worlds or to own its rockets. It does list a number of categories in which NASA is expected to "contribute materially," but that's a long way from a mandate. The Act does require NASA to help grow commercial space, an amendment added by the Reagan Administration in 1984.

NASA was intended to be a crucible of aerospace innovation that would be exploited by other government agencies and by the private sector — not a space taxi service, and certainly not a government guaranteed job program.

The GAO report and the Augustine Commission's findings led the Obama administration to conclude that the only way to assure the quick development of American access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) was to prime commercial space, which is free of Congressional machinations. The proposal implicitly rejected the pork-first attitude of the subcommittees.

Hence the political firestorm in the months since Obama's proposal was announced.

Some space advocates honestly fear that ending Constellation means an end to human deep-space exploration. They want another Apollo, a permanent lunar colony, footsteps on Mars.

I'm all for that, but the harsh reality is that Constellation would have delivered none of it. The Augustine Commission estimated that the first lunar mission would have been around 2028, and what would it have accomplished? More Moon rocks? That would hardly justify the hundreds of billions of dollars flushed into pork-laden contracts by subcommittee members.

For years now, poll after poll show that a majority of Americans want less government spending on space, and for the private sector to take over. There is no widespread political will to go to the Moon, to establish a lunar colony, or to walk on Mars. Fantasize about it all you want, but it's not going to happen. President Obama could address Congress tomorrow to declare that we walk on Mars by 2020, just as President Kennedy did in 1961 with the Moon, but it wouldn't happen. Why? Nobody cares. There's no Cold War, there's no Space Race, there's no threat of nuclear Armageddon.

It's a different world now. The United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan jointly operate the International Space Station. Informal gestures have been made to invite the Chinese to join the ISS partnership. This is the future, not one nation flushing five percent of its annual budget into collecting more Moon rocks as happened in the 1960s.

The American space program is at a crossroads. Is it about pork, or is it about national interest?

Most sensible people would argue the latter, and the national interest right now is commercial space. The ISS partnership has invested years and $100 billion in completing the station, which is to serve as a crucible for scientific and medical research — NASA's true purpose under the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Our next step should be to make it more accessible to the world.

If we want a permanent human presence in space, we have to make it cheaper for humans to get there. A pork-laden government program isn't the solution. NASA will never fly you or me into space; political gimmicks like Teacher in Space and Congressmen in Space were tried in the 1980s and we know how those turned out.

Private citizen access to LEO will have to come from the private sector. Whether it's SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, the Boeing/Bigelow partnership or some other group, they are the ones who will provide private civilian access to LEO. The destination may be the ISS, Bigelow's inflatable habitat, or no more than a suborbital thrill ride. None of those options will ever come from a government pork program.

In recent days, Florida's U.S. senator Bill Nelson introduced a bill that would provide tax credits for commercial space initiatives, and President Obama's space jobs task force issued a report that calls for $35 million in federal grants to aviation, solar power and life sciences companies willing to locate in space communities and hire laid-off workers.

Those who appear to be most vocally opposed are Republicans who, in an election year, would criticize Obama if he walked on water. Yet they seem to offer no alternative other than to continue the status quo — which, of course, continues pork to their districts.

I'm no rabid believer in the invisible hand of capitalism. Private business exists to make a profit, and as we saw with Enron, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, British Petroleum, and many others in recent years much of the private sector lacks a moral compass. Capitalistic excesses typically occur where effective governmental regulation is absent. Since the Reagan administration, regulation has been a favorite target of conservatives, and in my opinion the results speak for themselves.

Whether it's NASA or the Federal Aviation Administration or both, someone needs to monitor commercial space to assure the technology is safe. But that should be the only government interference.

Others have suggested that the government should not subsidize commercial space, a philosophy I can understand. But the federal government for decades, if not centuries, has subsidized certain private sector activities to prime the economic pump, so this is hardly new. In a multi-trillion dollar budget, I've no problem with $5 billion to jump-start commercial space. Other nations have no problem subsidizing their growth industries, so why handicap ours in competition with the rest of the world?

We won't know for a while what final NASA bill emerges from Congressional sausage-making, but in my opinion the more Congress views NASA as home-district pork with foolish orders such as dictating the design of the next-generation heavy lifter, the further behind NASA will fall which will only hasten the arrival of commercial space.

1 comment:

  1. It will be interesting to see if any Republicans or Democrats change their tune after the new Congress is seated. Politics, like money, can make people act strangely...