Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On Urgent National Needs

President John F. Kennedy addresses Congress on May 25, 1961.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

— President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

It's perhaps the most famous speech by any President in the history of U.S. human space flight.

And also the most misinterpreted.

Looking back through the prism of history, it might even be argued that the speech did more harm than good to the cause of a permanent human presence in space.

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress. Titled "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs," the speech was not solely about the U.S. space program or about the Moon. Its most famous passage, which is all that survives in our collective mythology, was only a few paragraphs near the end of the speech.

Click here to read the speech.

Click here to listen to the speech.

I've written several blog articles on the subject of Kennedy and NASA. Dr. John M. Logsdon, perhaps the pre-eminent space historian of our time, published a book in January titled John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, the authoritative work on the title subject.

Contrary to the mythology, Kennedy was not a space visionary. As a Senator in the late 1950s, he claimed that a "missile gap" existed between U.S. military rockets and those of the Soviet Union. Kennedy was wrong, and once in office was told so by defense and intelligence advisors. But his error was a significant and contributing factor to the birth of the Space Age.

Kennedy defined the "missile gap" as the difference in maximum lift capacity between Soviet and American rockets, implying that because a Soviet rocket could lift a heavier payload it somehow meant America's enemy could strike her with a more devastating nuclear weapon. It was a totally inaccurate interpretation of rocket technology; in reality, the U.S. was far superior at miniaturization than the USSR.

The fear of this "missile gap" at the height of the Cold War convinced Congress to adopt Kennedy's proposal to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s and return him safely to Earth. The motivation was to show the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union. In short, it was about "prestige," a word that shows up time and again in documents of the period. The evidence is clear that most Administration officials knew the U.S. had superior military might.

Fifty years later, no such fear of a "missile gap" exists. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The U.S. and Russia collaborate in joint operation of the International Space Station. Private company Lockheed-Martin chooses to use a Russian RD-180 engine as the first stage in its Altas V rocket.

So a Moon mission in today's world is no longer an "urgent national need."

Been there, done that, over 40 years ago.

No other nation has gone since, and none seem inclined to go any time soon.

A May 15, 2011 article in the Orlando Sentinel posed this fundamental question: "What's the mission of NASA's human-spaceflight program?"

Its purpose in its earliest days, before Kennedy's speech, was quite different.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act defines NASA's objectives. Nowhere does it require NASA to launch humans into space, to explore other worlds, or even to own its rockets.

Yet within a week after NASA began operation on October 1, 1958, NASA's first administrator, Dr. T. Keith Glennan, approved the Mercury Project. Mercury's goals were:

  • To orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth
  • To investigate man's ability to function in space
  • To recover both man and spacecraft safely
This was in the same time that Senator Kennedy insisted a "missile gap" existed between the Soviet Union and the United States.

After Alan Shepard's historic Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961, now-President Kennedy decided after extensive analysis by his administration to propose a Moon mission. Accomplishing such a feat cost the United States a total of $150 billion in current dollars. At its peak in 1965-1966, the NASA budget was over 4% of the federal budget. Today it's about one-half of one percent. Four percent of today's federal budget would work out to over $150 billion in just one year!

The beliefs of space advocates (including myself) aside, one would be hard pressed to argue today that human space flight is an "urgent national need." And as the Orlando Sentinel questioned, what should be the mission of NASA's human space flight program?

If there were a compelling argument that would convince members of Congress, and the taxpayers who elect them, to spend more for a robust government human space flight program, that argument would have been made long ago. Many printed and virtual publications argue the point, but the reality is it doesn't exist.

It's certainly a question I try to answer myself. How does one convince a space skeptic to spend more than the current $18 billion per year on NASA's budget?

Perhaps the more fundamental question should be ... why spend it on NASA?

Government space is hopelessly compromised by politics. Rand Simberg's May 13 opinion article in the Washington Examiner observed:

... [I]f you look at the people who wrote the [NASA Authorization Act of 2010] (Sens. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas, Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama) you will be struck by the amazing coincidence that they all have major Shuttle contractors in their states.

Orlando Sentinel reporter Mark Matthews wrote:

The intent of the law, championed by U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, was to keep shuttle contractors in business while preserving at least some of the shuttle jobs in Florida, Texas and elsewhere that are set to go away after the orbiter's last flight.

Should NASA's mission be to preserve government jobs?

The members of the House and Senate space subcommittees, most of whom have NASA space centers and/or contractors in their districts, seem to think so because it delivers pork (and implicitly votes) to the home front.

Part of the problem lies with how NASA expanded for the Apollo Moon program. NASA space centers opened across the country. Contracts were issued to aerospace companies throughout the nation. The argument was, quoting Kennedy from his speech:

... It will not be one man going to the moon — if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Not much thought was given, apparently, to what might come after the Moon mission. All that money was spent on building a human space flight infrastructure dedicated to launching a human mission. But then what?

The argument inevitably comes back to politicians claiming we need to preserve this infrastructure and those employed by it. But no one seems to ask whether we really should. Did anyone raise the same argument when the horseless carriage arose to replace the stagecoach industry?

The Space Launch System directed by Congress in that 2010 act ordered NASA to develop a heavy-lift rocket based on Shuttle technology. Just what the nation will do with it was not specified by the act.

Human space flight is at a crossroads. We can continue to pour taxpayer dollars into a sclerotic and dysfunctional government agency hopelessly compromised by selfish political interest. Or we can seek another solution.

Commercial space flight seeks to be that solution.

It has its roots in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program begun in 2005 by the Bush administration as a more affordable means of delivering cargo to the International Space Station. The Obama administration in 2009 expanded the program to include transporting crew.

Critics claim that commercial entities have yet to prove they can deliver on their promises, but that's true of any new program going all the way back to the Mercury Project. They criticize when a private company receives a partial subsidy from the government, but that's because NASA wants to accelerate development so these vehicles will be available as soon as possible. They argue that these companies have no experience, yet SpaceX has already orbited the first commercial cargo capsule in history and the other competitors include experienced aerospace companies such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.

Some of the most vocal critics have been those members of Congress trying to protect their pork.

Recent comments by NASA administrator Charles Bolden as reported May 23 by Aviation Week reveal just how "disruptive," to quote Bolden, the new commercial model may be to the status quo:

Administrator Charles Bolden [says] that the SpaceX approach to management is “disruptive technology” that can bring “great gains” to the space program.

“They don’t spread things all over the country the way that NASA and defense contractors tend to do,” Bolden told the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on May 19. “They’re very focused in two locations in the country. They bring everything in-house. They have no subcontractors, so everything comes to them. That’s disruptive.”

This would seem to imply that NASA needs to close and consolidate its space centers to save money and improve efficiency.

Good luck convincing the members of Congress representing those districts to let that happen.

Are there vulnerabilities with commercial flight? Of course. Those companies are driven by profit. Their agenda is set by a CEO and a board of directors. They cannot be forced to reveal their balance sheets, meaning we gamble human space flight on the integrity of these companies.

But is that any different from the problems we have now with government flight?

We can only speculate what might have been the course of human space flight if Kennedy had chosen to propose a different course, such as an incremental approach that wasn't a "race" with the Soviet Union. (Dr. Logsdon's book suggests a "race" may have existed only in the minds of the Americans, not the Soviets.) Kennedy himself proposed before the United Nations in September 1963 that the two nations combine their efforts for a joint Moon mission.

The "race" skewed NASA's mission. Yes, it resulted in a Moon landing, arguably the most significant achievement in the history of human technology. But we didn't follow up on it, and neither has any other nation.

My conclusion is that two steps are necessary to put us back on course to a responsible and affordable human space flight program.

The first is the direction already taken by the Obama administration — liberate low Earth orbit by turning over access to the private sector. That means not just vehicles such as the SpaceX Falcon 9, but also the commercial space station effort by Bigelow Aerospace. Key members of Congress may protest, but the gist of the 2010 space act is that the Obama administration got commercial space in exchange for giving Congress its government space launch system, which keeps the porkers somewhat distracted, if not placated.

The second step is the future of human space flight beyond Earth orbit. We can argue about how we get there, but where is "there"? The Moon? Mars? Asteroids?

We have no consensus, and really no leadership on the matter.

In April 2010, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev informally proposed an international summit of spacefaring nations to pool their resources. No one apparently took him up on it, nor did Medvedev follow up on the idea.

The International Space Station can be viewed as a model. The United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan collaborate to operate the facility. It will fly at least through 2020, and possibly to 2028.

The next logical step would be a permanent lunar colony, essentially an ISS on the Moon's surface. The cost would be much more than the ISS, and an unprecedented engineering challenge, as well as requiring a means of rotating crew as we do now with the ISS.

If an international space summit reached this conclusion and the spacefaring nations signed an agreement to proceed, it would be up to Congress to approve or reject American participation. This would put porking members of Congress in a difficult position — they may try to somehow obstruct the vote by insisting work be directed to their district, but if they vote against the proposal then they risk appearing as if they were embarrassing the United States in front of the global community.

That might be the only leverage over those with selfish parochial interests. Of course, once it passed then they'd return to trying to divide up the project — but at least U.S. human space flight would finally have a new mission.

It might even be deemed an urgent national need.

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