A quick analysis of the new Obama Space Policy


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You can read it here, if you have a mind. It is filled with the typical go-gooder blather that you find in every policy statement produced by every politician and his or her policy wonks, from either party.

Nonetheless, the Obama policy is far different from the Bush policy. The Bush philosophy for NASA is probably best ipitomized by this speech by Mike Griffin, former NASA administrator during the Bush administration. The key quote:

I am convinced that leadership in the world of the 21st Century and beyond will go to the nation that seeks to fulfill the dreams of mankind. We know what motivates those dreams. Exploring new territory when it becomes possible to do so has defined human striving ever since our remote ancestors migrated out of the east African plains. The human imperative to explore new territories, and to exploit the resources of these territories, will surely be satisfied, by others if not by us. What the United States gains from a robust, focused program of human and robotic space exploration is the opportunity to define the course along which this human imperative will carry us.

In other words, the focus during the Bush years was to have the United States lead the way in exploring and colonizing the solar system, with NASA in charge.

The Obama philosophy in this new space policy is far less interested in exploration. Instead, the focus is on international cooperation and sharing the universe with everyone. Here is for me the key quote from the policy statement:

As established in international law, there shall be no national claims of sovereignty over outer space or any celestial bodies. The United States considers the space systems of all nations to have the rights of passage through, and conduct of operations in, space without interference. Purposeful interference with space systems, including supporting infrastruction, will be considered an infringement of a nation’s rights.

In other words, space is a communal farm, shared by everyone.

The sense I also get from reading the Obama policy is a focus not in pushing outward to explore the unknown, to go where no one has ever gone before, but on looking back at the Earth to make things on Earth better. Both the “Principles” and “Goals” as outlined in the Obama Policy (pages 2 and 3) say very little about exploration. Instead, the focus is on stimulating the world’s space industry in order to improve life on Earth. The proposal to send humans to an asteroid and eventually to Mars is listed near the end of the document, almost as an afterthought.

Some will like this new approach. Others will detest it. From my perspective, it is simply naive.

First of all, the fantasy that territory in space will remain communal property, unowned by any person or nation, is foolish. The space colonists who will go there to live are eventually going to tell us to go to hell, and will then set up their own nations — with property rights — if only to guarantee that they have the same rights that we here on Earth enjoy.

Second, the exploration of space is not being done to make life on Earth better. That is certainly a significant side benefit, but the people sweating to build new rockets and spaceships are not doing it for these reasons. They are doing it because they want to explore and colonize the solar system. And they are doing it because they want to make money at it.

In the end, the problem with establishing a policy that is not based on reality is that reality will eventually bite back. Just because the United States wants to play nice with everyone and share space with the rest of the world does not mean that the rest of the world will do the same. In fact, it almost guarantees that they won’t. Other nations are going to immediately try to fill the vacuum this Obama policy creates.

Unfortunately, for the near future things do not look good for the American effort in space.

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