Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Foul Weather

Donald Trump campaigns August 3 in Daytona Beach. Image source: Orlando Sentinel.

Space News published today a space policy guest column by two senior policy advisors to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Nowhere in the article does it state that Mr. Trump himself participated in the writing of the column, or the policies proposed in it. The co-authors simply claim they know what a Trump administration would do.

Robert Walker, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, once chaired the House Science Committee while Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House. Gingrich reportedly was on the short list of individuals considered to be Trump's vice-presidential running mate. Both are long-time supporters of space exploration, in particular advocating for a larger role by the private sector.

In January 2012, Republican presidential candidate Gingrich delivered a space policy speech in Cocoa, Florida. His proposals got him mocked by rival Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who went on to win the Florida Republican presidential primary and nomination. Saturday Night Live satirized Gingrich's moon base proposal with a skit titled, “Newt Gingrich: Moon President.”

Walker and Gingrich, ironically, endorsed in February 2010 President Barack Obama's space policy program. In a Washington Times guest column, “Obama's Brave Reboot for NASA,” the two took a lonely stance defending the administration's plans to open space to the private sector.

Despite the shrieks you might have heard from a few special interests, the Obama administration’s budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deserves strong approval from Republicans. The 2011 spending plan for the space agency does what is obvious to anyone who cares about man’s future in space and what presidential commissions have been recommending for nearly a decade.

Peter Navarro, co-author of today's Space News column with Walker, is a professor of economics and public policy at the University of California Irvine. I haven't found anything to suggest Dr. Navarro has any kind of knowledge or experience about the government space program or the emerging NewSpace industry.

The policies and proposals in today's column are not that far off from the Obama administration, which has prioritized NewSpace as a means for lowering the cost and improving the technology to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Unlike Mr. Trump, President Obama put his name on the column that reflects his current space policy. “America Will Take the Giant Leap to Mars“ was posted on on October 11. The President wrote:

We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time. Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we're already well on our way. Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station.

The next step is to reach beyond the bounds of Earth's orbit. I'm excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space. These missions will teach us how humans can live far from Earth — something we'll need for the long journey to Mars.

Nowhere in Mr. Obama's column does he mention the Space Launch System and its Orion capsule. Congress imposed that program upon NASA in 2010, to protect Space Shuttle and Constellation government contractor jobs in the districts and states of certain members of Congressional space committees. Called the Senate Launch System by its critics, the design was unveiled in September 2011, not by NASA but by members of the House and Senate who imposed SLS upon NASA. They bragged about the jobs they'd saved. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) called it “the Monster Rocket.”

September 14, 2011 ... Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), among other members of Congress, unveil the design for Space Launch System.

Walker and Navarro didn't mention SLS either, but they did write:

Creating the technologies necessary to meet these goals would push us into the forefront of technological development and benefit our economy for decades to come. However, NASA cannot be expected to do this kind of 21st century Apollo-like mission if it is forced to accept outdated operational structures, contracting procedures, and bureaucracies created in the last century.

Space Launch System, wink wink, nudge nudge.

The co-authors claim that “space policy is uncoordinated within the federal government,” without offering any proof to substantiate that. They wrote, “A Trump administration would end the lack of proper coordination by reinstituting a national space policy council headed by the vice president.”

The mission of this council would be to assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests. Key goals would be to would create lower costs through greater efficiencies. As just one example, a Trump administration will insist that space products developed for one sector, but applicable to another, be fully shared.

Apparently the co-authors chose to ignore that the United States government has been doing that since NASA began in 1958.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 is NASA's charter. It spells out the agency's charges and permissible activities. Section 102(c) is the key; it lists what NASA is supposed to do. “The aeronautical and space activities of the United States shall be conducted so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives.” Note that the agency is required only to “contribute materially,” not lead, and for only “one or more” of the listed objectives.

Objective (6) states:

The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defenses of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency.

Objective (8) states:

The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment.

For many years, NASA used boosters developed originally as military weapons to send its payloads into space. Thor, Titan, Redstone, and Atlas were all originally military weapons that NASA purchased or accepted from the military for its programs.

In recent years, commercial launch company United Launch Alliance has used its Delta IV and Atlas V boosters to launch both NASA and military payloads from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Upstart SpaceX recently won its first U.S. Air Force contract, and hopes to one day launch military reconnaissance payloads on its new Falcon Heavy booster. SpaceX is a prime example of the success of NASA's commercial crew and cargo programs, which began in November 2005 under President George W. Bush. By acting as an anchor tenant, NASA helped SpaceX to attract investors to build commercial launch systems. SpaceX spent 100% of the money used to develop the Falcon 9 and the next-generation Falcon Heavy. SpaceX now provides a far cheaper, yet still unproven, option for launching government payloads into space.

The problem with the national space policy council idea is that it's been tried in the past, and never worked.

The 1958 act created a National Aeronautics and Space Council which answered to the President, but its purpose was strictly advisory. President Dwight Eisenhower only agreed to its creation in 1958 after negotiating with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, but in 1960 recommended it be abolished.

April 25, 1961 ... President John F. Kennedy signs a bill amending NASA's charter to designate the Vice-President as the space council chair.

In the spring of 1961, President John F. Kennedy charged Vice-President Lyndon Johnson with chairing the council for one specific task — to recommend a response to the Soviet orbiting of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961. After that, Johnson had no influence on U.S. space policy until he succeeded the slain President on November 22, 1963.

President Nixon, when he took office in January 1969, appointed his Vice-President Spiro Agnew to a similar advisory role. Their charge was to recommend what to do with NASA once humans walked on the Moon. The advisory report offered a grandiose vision for the future, which was largely ignored, although its recommendation of a Space Transportation System led to the Space Shuttle program.

The Council was abolished in 1973, and briefly revived under George H.W. Bush from 1989 until 1993, then discarded. Vice-President Dan Quayle, chair of the Council, tried to usurp control of NASA from Administrator Richard Truly.

Since then, no President has brought back the Council, although 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at one time did propose its revival. After he became President in January 2009, Obama appointed a Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee to recommend a space policy direction for his administration, but after that space policy remained with NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Nearly sixty years of NASA history have shown that the idea of an advisory space council is a bad one. It will have no authority at best, and at worst will try to interfere with the daily operations of agencies far more knowledgeable about what they do. Neither will an advisory council be able to override Congress, which in the end determines space policy and appropriates the funding for it.

The article also falsely states another reason for NASA's existence, a common falsehood circulated these days by Republican politicians. The co-authors wrote:

NASA was formed in the crucible of Sputnik and took this nation to the moon and stars. Today, it has been largely reduced to a logistics agency concentrating on space station resupply and politically correct environmental monitoring.

Another Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, falsely claimed that NASA isn't supposed to be involved in earth sciences or studying climate change.

But the first objective stated in NASA's 1958 charter is:

The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.

NASA's roots trace back to the International Geophysical Year, a globally coordinated program by the nations of the Earth to study the planet's meteorology, oceanography, seismology, and atmospheric interaction with space. The United States and Soviet Union, as part of the IGY, would launch the world's first satellites to study those phenomena. In the United States, that program was called Vanguard.

In the Soviet Union, it was Sputnik (Russian for “satellite”).

Public and political hysteria in the United States after the first two Sputniks launched in fall 1957 led to the creation of NASA. Vanguard was transferred to the new civilian agency.

April 1, 1960 ... The first weather satellite image from space, transmitted by TIROS I.

In 1960, NASA began the first weather satellite program, called TIROS (for Television Infrared Observation Satellite). TIROS created the world's first meteorological satellite information system. TIROS provided the first accurate weather forecasts based on data gathered from space, with continuous coverage beginning in 1962.

Collection of data by TIROS and other meteorological observation satellites provided the hard evidence to document climate change, which is why I suspect Republicans are so intent on shutting down NASA's earth science programs.

The article concludes:

Space is the frontier on which American aspiration can become humankind’s inspiration. It is our freedom and our courage that allows us to do great things. Space represents a challenge of infinite proportions. There is no environment more hostile. There are no distances to travel that are greater. And yet Americans seem to know intuitively that the destiny of a free people lies in the stars. Donald Trump fully agrees.

But in November 2015, Trump told a ten-year old boy he'd rather spend money on fixing potholes than on NASA.

And in August, Trump said in Daytona Beach that NASA is a space program “like a Third World nation,” which is laughable considering all that NASA is doing now. He also suggested that the purpose of the space program is to perpetuate government jobs, commenting, “Look what's happened to your employment.”

What does Donald Trump truly believe about NASA and American space activities?

He's scheduled to visit Kennedy Space Center on Monday October 24, which probably explains the timing of this column written by two surrogates. We await to see if what he says on Monday jibes with this column, his August statement, his November statement, or whatever other random thought comes out of his mouth.

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