Saturday, January 26, 2013

Not Another Space Policy Forum

Click the arrow to watch “Lost in Space: The Need for a Definitive U.S. Space Policy” on YouTube.

The Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University held an event on January 26 titled, “Lost in Space: The Need for a Definitive U.S. Space Policy.”

All six panelists hold doctorates in their various fields. Among the panelists were former astronaut Leroy Chiao and space policy analyst John Logsdon, author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.

(Dr. Logsdon announced that he's working on a sequel book about how the Nixon Administration chose to approve the Space Shuttle.)

Although some of the panelists brought an agenda to the dais — Mark Albrecht falsely claimed that Kennedy Space Center is “crumbling” despite the current massive investment in upgrades — all of them essentially agreed that the government space program lacks the political support it had during the Cold War of the 1960s.

I'd hoped that one of the panelists might raise the fundamental question, “Is NASA as currently organized functionally obsolete?” But that might have been too outrageous a question for the Houston audience.

None of the panelists had a viable solution. If one existed, it would have been uncovered long ago. Which is why I wish someone had posed the question.

This was just the latest in a long line of distinguished panels lamenting the state of the government space program. Yet no one ever has the fix.

The January 26 Florida Today had an article titled, “Safety Panel Pushes for NASA Oversight of Private Test Flights.” It was a report by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, which offers advice about spaceflight safety. ASAP was founded in 1968 in the wake of the Apollo 1 fire; that anniversary is tomorrow.

In a public meeting, ASAP called for NASA and Congress to “resolve this conundrum” about how much responsibility NASA should have for commercial space human test flights.

The panel also called out the failure of Congress to properly fund commercial space.

The group also noted that Congress has given NASA’s commercial crew program roughly half the money it requested during the past two years.

The program in 2013 is expected to receive about $500 million, again well below the $830 million NASA requested.

“That drives a disconnect between planning and the funds to execute that plan,” [panel chair Joseph] Dyer said.

The article also noted that the Congress-mandated Space Launch System is underfunded as well.

Meanwhile, NASA already has some concern about whether its new heavy-lift exploration rocket, called the Space Launch System, will be ready for a first, unmanned launch from KSC in late 2017, reported ASAP member Don McErlean, senior director for federal programs at L-3 communications.

Typically for such complex development projects, funding ramps up early on, peaks as a design matures and then drops off until production work begins.

But the SLS program has a flat budget of about $1.4 billion proposed annually through 2017.

Even more warnings from yet another panel that Congress is failing to properly support the government space program.

In December, the National Academies warned about Congress' failure to properly fund NASA. That warning came after other independent entities issued similar findings in 2009 and 2011.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee issued a statement this week declaring its priorities for the new Congressional session. Despite all the warnings, it appears we'll be stuck with more of the same.

According to Marcia S. Smith at

The committee asserts that "NASA has not clearly articulated what types of future human space flight missions it wishes to pursue, or their rationale." It plans to "further review ... costs associated with cancellation of the Constellation program, NASA's approach to develop and fund a successor to the Space Shuttle, and investment in NASA launch infrastructure." It also plans to examine the "feasibility of NASA's plans and priorities relative to their resources and requirements."

The false claim yet again that “NASA has not clearly articulated” what it wants to pursue is debunked by a visit to NASA's Budget web site, which is filled with documents "articulating" missions and destinations.

To further prove the lie, in August NASA submitted to Congress a report titled, “NASA Exploration Destinations, Goals, and International Collaboration”. This report was mandated by the last Congress which also claimed that “NASA needs to better articulate a set of specific, scientifically meritorious exploration goals to focus its program and provide a common vision for future achievements.”

Congress ignored the report.

So now we have a new session continuing to blame the White House and NASA for its own refusal to do its job.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Instead of panels, let's have a united declaration by space advocacy groups that it's time to do an end-run on Congress and throw our support with commercial space. Private investors and entrepreneurs don't need Congressional approval.

Sure, the commercial cargo and crew programs rely on federal seed money, but eventually companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada will grow their programs beyond federal investments. Bigelow Aerospace just signed a deal to place a demonstration module at the International Space Station, but their business model doesn't require that. Other companies, such as Stratolaunch, XCOR, Planetary Resources and now Deep Space Industries, aren't looking for one dime of federal subsidy.

Has spaceflight reached the point where it doesn't need Congress any more?

That's the question the next space policy panel should ask.


  1. I thought the panel was a good one. Two points were clear - (1) that it is a political problem and (2 (less clear) that the underlying problem is that a compelling rationale for how human space flight serves national needs has never really been articulated.

    That NASA has, in fact, articulated this is just nuts. Their plan is an implmentation plan, as in, to the extent we want to do human space flight here is a telephone book about where we ought to go and how.

    I think commercial space is great, in that serving national needs becomes a commercialization decision. If it makes money, then it's good. Politics doesn't enter the equation. In this context, it might well be wise for NASA to just wash its hands of human space flight entirely.

  2. Quite a decent panel, I thought. Okay, it was "The Space Program As Observed From A High Level", with no input from people actually running space programs, precious little attention to ongoing commercial space development, and not much reference to the military space programs which soak up more resources than NASA (and have their own program difficulties). Think of it as commentary from The Old Gray Establishment. But past experience is that's what the Baker Institute provides when it looks at spaceflight.

    What strikes me in retrospect, from this panel and a comparable one at the George Marshall Institute not long ago, is how tired and defeated the participants all seem to be. Space has infinite potential seems to be a common attitude. But the White House will never focus on anything but current political crises; OMB will never allow funding for ambitous programs; Congress means well but is short-sighted and provincial; the citizens aren't asking for anything more. Real change isn't possible.

    This isn't exactly the voice of a rising, exuberant world culture.

  3. The underlying issue is that we'd like to see a developing, growing, self-sufficient interplanetary human civilization. But we don't have the technology to build such a thing, we don't have the wealth it would cost, we don't have a culture committed to that program, and our economic system is based on short-term high-payoff low-risk investment.

    I don't care how many libertarians are going to jump up and insist the profit motive will inspire space colonization if only the government got out of the way of entrepeneurs. That's a religion, not reality. Apple Computer is not going to drop 50 billion bucks on lunar colonization in the next decade with the hope that it will reap 30% annual returns forever after on its expenditure. Nor is Google, nor Microsoft, nor Cisco. And SpaceX and Bigelow between them will not keep LEO space stations going if the US government decides to sink ISS in the ocean and stop spending on any form of manned space flight.

    Only governments have the resources necessary for space colonization, and only governments operate on the necessary time scale. Unfortunately, governments generally don't have popular support for such efforts, they don't have the skills to run such programs efficiently, and they generally have higher priority issues to deal with.

    Maybe we're screwed. Maybe progress in space programs waits on another century of economic growth and the appearance of great powers that supplant the US in world affairs. I'd like to think it's not so bad, but... just about all discussion of space issues on the Internet avoids dealing with fundamental issues. That doesn't bode well.