Romney, the Republicans, and Space

The Republican Party, as part of their national convention taking place in Florida this week, yesterday released their party platform for the upcoming election campaign.

Normally, I don’t waste my time with party platforms. No one really reads it, and no president ever follows it. Granted, it can give you a general sense of where a party and candidate is headed philosophically, but this is politics. If you think philosophy is their number one priority then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.

However, this document is helpful to us, at least when it comes to the nation’s space effort, as it actually devotes one entire (though short) section on the subject. Considering how vague Mitt Romney has been on what he will do with NASA and space, and how schizophrenic the Republicans in Congress have been, any hint on how they might approach this particular program should they win the election is helpful.

Here is the entire statement of the Republican party platform on the subject of space exploration:

America’s Future in Space: Continuing this Quest

The exploration of space has been a key part of U.S. global leadership and has supported innovation and ownership of technology. Over the last half-century, in partnership with our aerospace industry, the work of NASA has helped define and strengthen our nation’s technological prowess. From building the world’s most powerful rockets to landing men on the Moon, sending robotic spacecraft throughout our solar system and beyond, building the International Space Station, and launching space-based telescopes that allow scientists to better understand our universe, NASA science and engineering have produced spectacular results. The technologies that emerged from those programs propelled our aerospace industrial base and directly benefit our national security, safety, economy, and quality of life. Through its achievements, NASA has inspired generations of Americans to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, leading to careers that drive our country’s technological and economic engines.

Today, America’s leadership in space is challenged by countries eager to emulate — and surpass — NASA’s accomplishments. To preserve our national security interests and foster innovation and competitiveness, we must sustain our preeminence in space, launching more science missions, guaranteeing unfettered access, and maintaining a source of high-value American jobs.

Notice anything? This platform says literally nothing about what the Republicans want to do in the future in space. Do they want to focus on the NASA-built Space Launch System? Do they instead want to encourage private enterprise and the new commercial companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada? Or do they want to do both?

The platform doesn’t tell us, and by not saying I think it reveals a great deal about the politics of space exploration within the Republican Party. There is a battle going on in the background, and because the outcome remains in doubt the party cannot yet announce what it wants to do.

On one side are the pork politicians like Kay Bailey Hutchison and Ralph Hall, who in past years worked very hard to get NASA money for its in-house projects. These politicians definitely like space exploration and everything it stood for, but wanted it designed, built, and run by NASA, so that the jobs it produced would exist in their state and district.

On the other side are the new tea party politicians, who favor the free market, private enterprise, and small government. Spending a lot of money on pork is not their idea of building a space industry. Instead, they want to see private enterprise do it, and are willing to let NASA die if necessary to make it happen. These include men like Newt Gingrich and Dana Rohrabacher, both of whom have even been willing to cross party lines and compliment the Obama administration’s efforts to encourage private enterprise in space.

The platform’s vagueness illustrates this battle. It also illustrates in microcosm the political battle going on in the Republican Party on all issues relating to federal spending and the federal debt.

It also suggests that Mitt Romney also remains undecided. It also suggests that he has remained undecided since his speech in January partly because he has seen the success of Dragon and SpaceX. He — and the party — are no doubt increasingly realizing that NASA-built is not necessarily the only option. Moreover, the federal debt weighs heavily on the mind of this party, which makes proposing any grand space effort impractical and impolitic at this time.

Thus, the most important factor in deciding this battle will be the success or failure in the next few months of the SpaceX and Orbital Science launches to ISS. If their private effort continues to succeed, they will give clout to the tea party politicians. “Let private space do it! They will get it done faster and cheaper, and we will be able to better balance the federal budget.”

If either fails, however, political power will shift to the pork politicians. They will continue to fund the boondoggles, but little will get built, and we will end up having to wait another few more decades before anything really happens in space.

We stand on a knife edge. I wish I knew which way we will fall.

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15 comments

  • While listing the highlights of US space exploration, not one word about Shuttle?! A program that ran for 30 years and employed a vehicle so advanced that no nation, or consortium of nations, fielded anything remotely matching its capabilities. Yes, there was Buran, but a single unmanned test flight does not an operational system make.

    As you point out, the Federal government is broke. As much as I appreciate space development, at this point we can’t justify public dollars for large, complex, and expensive manned programs. We have no choice but to let American companies develop our manned space capability. The phrase that stands out to me is “guaranteeing unfettered access”, which would seem to imply that a Romney administration would restrain an overzealous regulatory environment.

  • wodun

    I wish the politicians who like the pork would focus it on having NASA build a true interplanetary space ship, something that is currently out of league for private businesses instead of launchers.

    Heck, if they had a COTS CCDEV type program for servicing satellites in GEO, it could be revolutionary for the one of the most vital global industries.

  • Kelly Starks

    I agree the Republican platform is nothing more then talking about NASA past greatness – and suggesting we are falling behind. NO ideas of what to do — but really, whatever they said would gain as much hostility as praise.

  • Joe

    “On one side are the pork politicians like Kay Bailey Hutchison and Ralph Hall, who in past years worked very hard to get NASA money for its in-house projects. These politicians definitely like space exploration and everything it stood for, but wanted it designed, built, and run by NASA, so that the jobs it produced would exist in their state and district.”

    “On the other side are the new tea party politicians, who favor the free market, private enterprise, and small government. Spending a lot of money on pork is not their idea of building a space industry. Instead, they want to see private enterprise do it, and are willing to let NASA die if necessary to make it happen. These include men like Newt Gingrich and Dana Rohrabacher, both of whom have even been willing to cross party lines and compliment the Obama administration’s efforts to encourage private enterprise in space.

    Will it ever be possible for you to discuss this issue without attributing corrupt motives (“pork politicians”) to those with whom you disagree?

    Someone could just as easily say the only reason Rohrabacher supports ‘Commercial’ Space is because Musk has held fundraisers for him. Anyone who did that would be wrong (even though such fundraisers have been held) because they cannot read Rohrabacher’s mind any more than you can read Hutchison or Hall’s.

    Many times on this website you make criticisms of a lack of “Leftwing civility” and I agree with those criticisms.

    Perhaps it would help if you lead by example.

    • Hi Joe,

      I made it very clear that many of these politicians are sincere and mean well, and actually might not have evil intents. Nonetheless, pork is pork, and the track record of NASA’s efforts to replace the shuttle with these kind of big government projects is very clear: A lot of money spent, nothing ever finished, and the only thing gained was a lot of jobs in the states and districts of these elected officials. To keep pushing the same-old same-old despite it not working does not reflect well on these politicians, no matter how sincere they might be. Thus, I will call them as I see them.

      And by the way, I don’t assume that Gingrich, Rohrabacher, or any of the other tea party politicians are completely pure either. After all, they are politicians. They require constant watching, and will without doubt require slapping down in the future when they go off track.

      • Joe

        Robert,

        First, thank you for the thoughtful response.

        I do not want to beat this subject, but with your indulgence I will make a couple of more points.

        The use of the term “pork” implies to most people corruption (moral, if not legal – see post by libs0n below). In both cases attribution of motives is subjective (absent specific evidence of a specific quid pro quo). Did Hutchison support SLS/MPCV because it would bring money into her state, or did she do so because constituents of hers convinced her it was a wise investment (and listening to her constituents and taking their points of view into account is part of her job)? Did Rohrabacher support Space X because they raised money for him, or did Space X raise money for him because he supported them? If you could ask them I suspect both would say it is the latter. Would either or both be telling the truth? Neither of us can know (again absent specific evidence). My point is if you are going to take circumstantial evidence as dispositive the standard should be applied to both sides equally. If Hutchison is to be called a “pork politician”, then so should Rohrabacher. Or (my own preference) neither should. Otherwise the analysis is not consistent.

        Only one more point (I promise). Even if you accept the circumstantial evidence as dispositive standard, it cannot be applied to Representative Hall. He represents Texas Congressional District 4. It is a rural/agricultural district northeast of Dallas. The Johnson Space Center is hundreds of miles away. District 4 does not stand to benefit directly and financially from any spending on SLS/MPCV.

    • libs0n

      I attribute corrupt actions to Hutchinson. Rohrabachers actions are not corrupt.

      Hutchinson authored legislation that gave special preference to space shuttle contractors in building the SLS. This when we know that there are other entities capable of building and competing to build a heavy lift vehicle. A new heavy lift vehicle should have been a fair and open competition.

      Compare this to Rohrabachers support of the commercial crew efforts. The two commercial programs, COTS and Commercial Crew, were open competitions where any company could compete for the job, and two competing companies won development work on it in both of them.

      Rohrabacher supports giving other companies that do not give him special treatment an equal and fair shot at the prize. Hutchinson doesn’t, she gives special treatment to favoured companies and fixed them billions of dollars in contracts. That is the difference between them Joe. Hutchinson is corrupt by her actions.

      • Kelly Starks

        >.. This when we know that there are other entities capable of building and competing to build a heavy lift vehicle. ..

        Who? They are practiclly all thats left of the industry – and their particular skill sets are nessisary to sustain other things like missles, adn the big mil space efforts.

  • Coastal Ron

    …we must sustain our preeminence in space, launching more science missions, guaranteeing unfettered access, and maintaining a source of high-value American jobs.”

    Sounds like they were trying to please everyone without pissing off anyone, which does sound like there is a big lack of agreement within the party, especially when you look at other parts of the party platform like social issues, woman’s rights, the number of gun clips you can buy, etc., etc.

    However it doesn’t look like space is a passionate issue for the party, and it didn’t help that there was nothing from the candidate himself to use as a starting point. So we got this pablum.

    • Kelly Starks

      Lets face it – space isn’t a criticle issue fopr the country now.

      Also theirs pretty strong bipartisan support of SLS, so no need to rock the boat for no big gain.

  • Edward Wright

    There’s no advantage to being too specific about space at this point and a lot of danger. (Look at Newt in 2011 or Ohama in 2007.)

    No Presidential candidate who isn’t Newt is going to decide space policy on his own, anyway. He’s going to rely on recommendations from trusted advisors. The “A” team won’t be on board until after the election, though. If the B players get to specific, they run the risk of tying the President-elect to a position he’ll have to back away from when he gets better (or at least different) advise.

  • D. Messier

    Six year of running for President (or eight, depending upon how you count it), and Romney has no discernible position on or plans for the space program. WTF has he been doing all this time?

    But then again, Mitt is vague on a lot of things. Basically, he’s selling himself as the Consultant in Chief, the old hand at turning around troubled ventures (Olympics, Bain, Bain’s clients and acquisitions, Massachusetts). And how does he do that? He sells his resume and expertise, tells the guys hiring him what they want to here (in this case, being a right-wing family values man), and keeps your options open by being vague on specifics.

    The problem is that America is not a business and can’t be run like one. The CEO model has been tried (disastrous, under Bush the Second).

    People want to know what the guy wants to do when elected, not that he will bring all the interested space parties together after the election to join hands, sing Kumbahya, and somehow come up with a coherent policy. Usually that’s what elections are about, explaining your plans.

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