January 25, 2012 ... Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich delivers a space policy speech in Cocoa. He didn't win.
Dear presidential candidate,
Congratulations on offering yourself as the next leader of the free world. (Except for you, Donald Trump. Go away.)
You will have many issues to debate on the campaign trail. The space program will be one of them, especially when you troll for votes near NASA space centers and the companies that have long enjoyed uncompetitive contracts from the government.
I'm not running, nor am I likely to do so any time soon, so I'm providing my free advice on space policy to any candidate who wants it.
To begin ...
You are probably a child of the Space Age. You grew up watching the Moon landing on television. You may have built spaceship models. Maybe you sat in a cardboard box in your backyard and pretended you were Neil Armstrong.
You will be tempted to cite John F. Kennedy as the model for how a government space program should be conducted. You may condemn your predecessors for not repeating that model.
That would be a big mistake.
The fact of the matter is that most of the American public couldn't care less about the government space program. Sure, they like to watch rockets launch, like fireworks on the Fourth of July. But for years polls have shown that a majority of Americans disagree when asked if more money should be spent on a government space program.
“Let's do Apollo again” plays to a few people in the Space Coast, Houston and Huntsville, but all those districts are safely Republican and don't represent a significant voting bloc. “Let's do Apollo again” is code for “Vote for me, and I'll create tens of thousands of taxpayer-funded space jobs for you” which any rational person knows won't happen.
You never hear a “Let's do Apollo again” speech in Iowa or New Hampshire. Only in towns that would benefit from space jobs. Which tells you it's just trolling for votes.
NASA was never intended to be Starfleet, much less workfare. It was created in October 1958 as a political response to the mistaken perception that American space technology was inferior to the Soviet Union. NASA was created by merging the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics with various civilian space research programs, most of which were in the Department of Defense.
One of those was Project Vanguard. Nominally a civilian program, the Naval Research Laboratory developed the booster rocket and satellite for this nation's contribution to the International Geophysical Year. Vanguard was transferred to NASA to complete its objectives, which were to study the geophysics of the Earth and atmospheric phenomena. That's why the first objective in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 is “The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”
So candidate Ted Cruz is wrong when he claims that NASA's core mission doesn't include earth sciences. FactCheck.org documented in March 2015 that Cruz “made some misleading claims regarding the agency’s budgets and the science that it conducts.”
NASA was supposed to be an aerospace research and development agency, a space version of the NACA. NASA was to uplift American space technology so it could be passed to other agencies and the private sector. Nothing in the 1958 NASA charter requires the agency to fly people into space or to own its rockets.
President Kennedy perverted NASA into a propaganda organ.
Kennedy campaigned on a mistaken claim that a “missile gap” existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. Once he assumed office in January 1961, it became his responsibility to close the non-existent “gap.”
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarian became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. The next week, the Bay of Pigs invasion failed miserably, so Kennedy had two public relations crises to address. The Kennedy and Khrushchev staffs were planning a summit in Vienna in June; Khrushchev during the Eisenhower administration had used another summit to gloat about supposed Soviet technological superiority.
A space policy task group chaired by Vice President Lyndon Johnson recommended a program to place an American on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. Documents and recordings from the Kennedy administration prove that Kennedy's motivation was “prestige.” John Logsdon's John F. Kennedy and the Race to Moon amply documents that, despite the lyrical public prose, Kennedy made it clear to his executives that NASA's top priority was to prove to the rest of the world that American technology was superior to the USSR.
November 21, 1962 ... President Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb argue about the Moon program. Video source: JFK Library YouTube channel.
In current dollars, it's estimated that the Moon program cost the U.S. taxpayer about $150 billion. Yes, it was one of the most notable technological achievements in human history, but it was before its time. By the end of the 1960s, neither the electorate nor their elected had much of an appetite for spending billions on human spaceflight.
For forty-five years, Presidents and the Congress have tried to figure out what to do with the agency and infrastructure left by Apollo.
Today's congressional space authorization and appropriations committees are populated by members who represent districts and states hosting NASA space centers or their legacy aerospace contractors. The members are on those panels to assure that the pork continues — but not to resurrect Apollo, no matter what rhetoric they spew in public hearings.
NASA's history is littered with human spaceflight programs that fell years behind schedule while running billions of dollars over budget. The reasons are many and complex. The bottom line is that NASA is all but incapable of innovation in human spaceflight. Congress, in fact, passed a law in 2010 requiring NASA to build the Space Launch System using existing Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors and technology. NASA was discouraged from innovating.
Several presidents have delivered Kennedyesque space speeches. All of them amounted to naught.
Barack Obama gave a space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010. He proposed increasing NASA's budget by $6 billion over five years, hoping to invest in new technologies that could send humans to Mars in the 2030s. Congress didn't care and wrote legislation that ordered the Space Launch System based on 1980s Space Shuttle technology.
During the 2012 Florida Republican primary, Newt Gingrich came to the Space Coast to deliver a space policy speech, then participated in a space policy roundtable. It got him mocked by fellow candidates, and by Saturday Night Live.
The “Newt Gingrich: Moon President” sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” February 4, 2012. Video source: NBC.com.
U.S. Census statistics show that more people alive now were born after Apollo (185 million) than before (123 million). For the majority of the population, the 1960s Space Age is a page in a history book, and has little personal emotional resonance.
So do yourself and the nation a favor. Don't invoke Kennedy.
As your campaign staff develops its space policy white paper, begin with a fundamental question — why should people be in space?
John Logsdon wrote in After Apollo: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program that the Nixon administration didn't want their President to go down in history as the one who ended American human spaceflight. People in space became the end goal. “Why” was never quite answered, other than the “prestige” argument.
In 2015, robots are the explorers.
Earlier, this month, NASA's New Horizons probe flew past Pluto. Almost ten years passed from launch to flyby. According to the 2006 New Horizons launch press kit, the probe cost about $700 million. Imagine the cost to keep humans alive all that time — not to mention the cost of returning them. The United States is the only nation to explore all planets in the solar system with robotic probes.
NASA's Curiosity rover landed almost three years ago on Mars. It's proven that water was once abundant on the planet, and continues to seek evidence of the chemical building blocks for life.
Humans evolved on Earth, not in a vacuum with solar radiation and lots of cosmic debris whizzing about the solar system at umpteen thousand miles per hour.
So is there a place for humans in space?
Robots perform tasks too complicated or dangerous for humans. They prepare the way for humanity.
But we shouldn't send people into space as an end. Human spaceflight is a means to an end.
Humans have always explored to find resources, not just for the thrill of it. Food, water, land, gold, oil — those are reasons why humanity explores.
Your space policy team must define a 21st Century space program that wisely evolves technology to serve humanity as it expands naturally into low Earth orbit and then the solar system.
Do you espouse American exceptionalism?
If so, then you probably champion the merits of American capitalism. (It's okay, Bernie Sanders, you can read this next part too.)
In June 2004, a commission appointed by President George W. Bush issued a report with a section titled, “Building a Robust Space Industry.” The report stated:
The Commission finds that sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. This space industry will become a national treasure.
NASA opened its Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office in November 2005. In the nearly ten years since, the agency has struggled to liberate human spaceflight from the government — an inherently contradictory task, since the primary goal of most government agencies is self-preservation.
April 21, 2005 ... NASA Administrator Michael Griffin meets with SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Image source: Wikimedia.
The Obama administration made “NewSpace” a priority, funding the commercial crew program which had gone unfunded under the prior administration. Two companies, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, offer robotic ships that deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Unlike the Space Shuttle, NASA no longer risks lives to deliver cargo. The cost of a SpaceX delivery is about $130 million. The cost of a typical Shuttle flight was about $1 billion. The cost of a SpaceX commercial crew flight will be about $450 million.
For the first time in our history, private entrepreneurs are encouraged to invest in their own space programs. The NewSpace economy is the hot new investment opportunity.
Click to watch the ISS R&D panel titled, “New Space: Funding New Ideas and Businesses in the Emerging Commercial Space Sector.” Video source: ISSCASIS YouTube channel.
Click to watch the NewSpace panel titled, “Incentivizing A Local Space Industry.” Video source: Space Conferences YouTube channel.
Earlier this month, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space hosted in Boston its annual ISS R&D Conference. The next week, the Space Frontier Foundation hosted its annual NewSpace conference in San Jose. Both events enjoyed record attendance, in particular from entrepreneurs and companies seeking to learn more about the emerging economy beyond the atmosphere.
This is your 21st Century U.S. space program.
It should be measured not just by the size of NASA's budget, but also by all the money being invested by the private sector in NewSpace.
Commercial products are on the market or in clinical trials that were developed in microgravity.
Some research suggests that cancer tumors are less aggressive in microgravity.
Zero Gravity Solutions, Inc., a Boca Raton biotechnology company, already has an agricultural product on the market based on its microgravity research. If you're campaigning in Florida, you could stop by to plant your NewSpace roots, so to speak.
Click the arrow to watch a CASIS video about Merck research in microgravity. Video source: ISSCASIS YouTube channel.
While campaigning in New Jersey (your home field, Chris Christie!), visit Merck Laboratories to learn how the company is using microgravity to reveal the structure of antibodies that could lead to treatments for a number of human diseases.
Beyond low Earth orbit, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are planning to harvest and mine asteroids for commercial profit. On July 16, Planetary Resources deployed its Arkyd spacecraft to test asteroid prospecting technology.
Bigelow Aerospace will deploy to the ISS on the next SpaceX cargo flight demonstration technology for its new expandable habitats that will be the 21st Century equivalent of the forts scattered across the Old West wilderness. Many U.S. cities and towns grew up around forts. The Bigelow habitats can be deployed in lunar orbit, on the lunar surface, at Lagrangian points and attached to crew modules for deep space human exploration.
Bigelow habitats are much stronger than the aluminum and steel used to build the ISS. Objects that would penetrate the ISS will bounce off the Bigelow habitats. It's also believed that the habitats will keep out more solar radiation, making them safer for humans on deep space missions.
Click the arrow to watch a Bigelow Aerospace promotional film. Video source: Bigelow Aerospace YouTube channel.
All this American entrepreneurial spirit seems exceptional to me.
Your space policy team should write a policy paper that defines a specific path into the solar system that follows these steps:
- Utilize the ISS as a demonstration platform for technologies to push humans and robotics into the solar system for commercial enterprises.
- As recommended by the 2004 Bush-appointed commission, expand on NASA's Centennial Challenge program to encourage entrepreneurs to invest in NewSpace.
- Using the competition model, offer milestone payments and awards to companies that use microgravity to pursue treatments for debilitating diseases.
- Define a path for entrepreneurs to invest in lunar commerce. A NASA funded study issued July 20 suggests that public-private partnerships could create a viable human lunar program at one-tenth the cost of a purely government program.
- Create a competition for commercial companies to position the 21st Century “forts” at logical sites in cislunar space, lunar orbit and on the surface. The government could be the anchor tenant, but the “forts” would be privately owned and operated.
- Aid the private sector in identifying asteroid mining candidates and the means for diverting the rocks to a harvesting location in cislunar space. A commercial habitat would be a logical parking spot.
- Direct NASA centers to privatize their facilities, using Kennedy Space Center's 21st Century Launch Complex as a model.
- Echoing its NACA roots, NASA should focus on developing 21st Century propulsion systems and robotic technologies that can be licensed to the private sector.
No doubt you will be asked, “How much will all this cost?”
The answer is not much. Most of it will be paid for by the entrepreneur, not the taxpayer, because the entrepreneur will own it.
We've done this before. In the 1920s, the Post Office issued contracts to entrepreneurs willing to invest in airplanes to deliver the mail. Later in the decade, the airlines received incentives to fly people. The routes, the airfields, the safety rules we enjoy today all trace back to the commercial contracts awarded by the Harding and Hoover administrations.
Your space policy team should read Airlines & Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry by F. Robert van der Linden. You will find the template for how to encourage a 21st Century NewSpace economy.
But what to do with our OldSpace economy, you might ask?
To be politically realistic, there isn't much you can do. Congress will continue to guard its pork. In 2010, the Obama administration proposed cancelling the failing Constellation program. Congressional members of both parties howled — “oinked” is probably more accurate — but in the end they agreed to kill Constellation. Congress unfortunately replaced it with the Space Launch System, another pork program that's already two years behind schedule.
You have no choice but to view the $3 billion spent per year on SLS as protection money. The racketeers on the space subcommittees will threaten to kill any NewSpace programs if you go after their pork. For years, Congress has cut the funding for the commercial crew program, extending U.S. reliance on Russia at least two years. For Fiscal Year 2016, the House has already voted to cut commercial crew 20%. The Senate as a body has yet to vote, but its Appropriations Committee has voted to cut commercial crew by 30%. These cuts would continue NASA reliance on Russia for ISS access at least two more years, to 2019.
Porkery has been a congressional institution since its founding, so don't look at me for an answer. You're the presidential candidate.
A GAO audit released earlier this month estimated that the first SLS flight will cost the taxpayer about $10 billion. For that uncrewed flight and the first crewed flight in the early 2020s, the cost will be about $23 billion.
Your space policy team might want to appeal to taxpayers by arguing there's a far cheaper way to put people into space, which means more people into space. Porkers answer only to their constituencies, so nationwide polls will be meaningless, but at least you can stake out a principled position as a space fiscal conservative while also appealing to visionaries who want more people in space.
The beauty of NewSpace is that it offers a parochial appeal to almost any taxpayer. Not many places have a NASA space center. But everyone can identify with finding a cure for cancer, a vaccine for MRSA, or a treatment for osteoporosis. For the younger generations, robotics offer a technology they can easily understand and embrace.
September 12, 1962 ... President Kennedy's “Moon” speech at Rice University. Video source: NASA.gov Video YouTube channel.
If you must embrace your inner Kennedy, do it with a speech that challenges the nation to a 21st Century Space Race which creates an entirely new economy opening space to the masses. Unlike 1961, when Kennedy thought we were behind, this time we're already in the lead.
Direct your space policy team to contact NewSpace organizations such as the Space Frontier Foundation for the names and addresses of NewSpace companies. As you campaign across the country, arrange to visit these companies. Make friends and influence people. Encourage them to pressure their elected members of Congress to support NewSpace.
As I wrote, most of the public couldn't care less about space. NewSpace won't get you elected. But if you want to fix all that ills the American space program, hopefully this free advice points you in the right direction.
After all, Kennedy said it wouldn't be easy. It will be hard.