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The release of the Senate’s draft language for NASA’s 2011 budget yesterday reveals a great deal about the failures of the Obama administration. Despite months of advocacy by administration officials as well as the upper management of NASA, it appears that the Senate (soon to be followed in a similar manner by the House) is eagerly willing to dismantle much of what the Obama administration is proposing for NASA, and is going to micromanage its own space program.
Why this happened is all very simple: You’ve got to play the game.
If you are going to request major changes to any government program that requires the approval of elected officials beholden to the people in their districts, you have to provide those elected officials some cover for their actions. You simply can’t shutdown these programs willy-nilly without any negotiation and expect members of Congress to go along — even if what you propose is a good idea and makes sense.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what the Obama administration has done. They have not only shown an astonishing incompetence at playing the political game, they have often acted as if politics is completely irrelevant to their needs, a position that is both stupid and counter-productive considering that Obama is a politician who has to get the agreement of the politicians in Congress.
First, it appears that the Obama administration didn’t include any of the other players in their discussions when they were developing their proposals. Neither Congress, the Defense Department, nor the aerospace industry were consulted at any length before the Obama budgets was released in February. This in itself seems foolish, since it only takes a nanosecond of deliberation to realize that the closing down of all American manned space programs at the same time would surely cause these players to scream and howl.
Then, when these players did begin to scream and howl, the Obama administration refused to consider any of their concerns. Members of Congress, who have to face re-election and know that to shut down the entire American manned space program in a single jolt will not go down well with voters, immediately began begging the admininstration to reconsider, to compromise in some manner. All to no avail.
When it was clear in the early spring that Obama’s proposals were not going over well, the President decided he would make a speech — his standard operating procedure for every problem — in order to outline why his proposals made sense and to hopefully convince everyone to go along. Instead, his speech on April 15 only worsened the political climate by insulting his audience with its hollow and unbelievable promises.
The best example of this was Obama’s promise, as stated in the speech’s fact sheet, that he “will commit to making a specific decision in 2015 on the development of a new heavy-lift rocket architecture.” Somehow this commitment was supposed to convince us that, despite his cancellation of the Constellation program (which already has had six years of development under its belt), his willingness to postpone making a decision for five years would somehow accelerate the program.
How stupid does Obama really think people are?
Then there is the Obama administration’s new space policy, linked to the main goals the administration has apparently given NASA administrator Charles Bolden. In the space policy, the focus is almost entirely on using NASA to solve problems on Earth, not to explore the solar system. Similarly, Bolden’s description of what the President wanted him to focus on (inspiring kids, international cooperation, and outreach to the Muslim community) have so little to do with space exploration and “going where no one has gone before” that they are almost laughable.
Worse, none of these goals do anything to serve the needs of Congress, which funds the program and therefore has to be convinced to go along. The focus on aiding the Muslim world while simultaneously devastating the entire American aerospace industry and putting tens of thousands of American workers out of work is a contrast that no elected official can ignore.
A smart politician would have recognized this fact, and might have played the political game by offering Congress some bone to get their cooperation. For example, had Obama proposed to extend the shuttle program for three years in exchange for cancelling Constellation, he would have probably gotten what he wanted. A limited shuttle extension during the transition to private commercial space maintains the United States capabilities for manned spaceflight while keeping the majority of NASA workers on the payroll during that transition. Not only does this remove most of the political objections expressed by Congress, it forces Congress to fund the new private commercial space ventures the Obama administration says it favors in order to keep that capability alive once the shuttle extension ends.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration didn’t do this. Instead, they refused to play the game, doing nothing to address Congress’s political concerns. In fact, when it comes to politics, the members of the Obama administration, from the President on down, appear to be the most tone deaf group of politicians ever to appear on the political stage. They are so completely out of touch with the political realities of the time that they sometimes look like clowns in their efforts.
Unfortunately, the consequence of this incompetence is that Congress is now trying to micromanage the American space program, a situation that in itself can do nothing but harm in the long run.
All these issues illustrate once again why it is always a very dangerous thing to let the government become involved in anything you do. Though there are rare cases where government can help, most of the time its presence creates numerous vested interests that will fight factional wars over everything, thereby making it very difficult for anything to be accomplished.
This is what we see now in the aerospace industry. In order to extricate that industry from the clutches of government it is necessary to get the various vested interests — Congress, NASA, and the aerospace industry that is funded by NASA — to agree to the process. Not surprisingly, it is very difficult to get this to happen. The result is a stagnated industry unable to prosper at its best.
All Americans should take heed of this lesson. The future cannot be bright if we choose to make the government a participant in every aspect of our lives.