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In my recent co-hosting stint on the John Bachelor Show, I asked David Livingston of the Space Show if he thought the aerospace community was polarized over the Obama administration’s effort to cancel Constellation and replace it with new private companies. “Pretty much so,” he stated without much hesitation.
This makes my position on Obama’s proposal somewhat unusual, as I am actually sitting right in the middle. I am both for and against the Obama administration’s NASA proposal, which might explain why my comments both on behindtheblack as well as on the radio have often caused the blood to boil in people on both sides of the debate. This fact also suggests that there is a need for me to clarify where I stand.
For almost fifteen years, since the publication of my first book, I have been arguing that the government space program run by NASA has been a failure and a problem. In this USA Today op-ed from 2003, I argued that NASA should be shut down and the money used to offer big prizes to private companies for doing the same thing. In my book Genesis, the Story of Apollo 8, I wrote that the rebirth in space exploration “will happen under the banner of freedom and private property.”
To restate: NASA is a big, centralized, Soviet-style government entity funded not by profit given freely by satisfied customers but by tax dollars coerced from those customers. Thus, it is bureaucratic, top-heavy in management, slow to improvise, and very inefficient.
This is not to suggest that the engineers at NASA are incompetent. Far from it. Some of the most brilliant people work for NASA, and their ability to solve difficult engineering problems is illustrated every time we watch the space shuttle lift off and then return safely home. The problem is that these engineers work for NASA, a government agency, and that this reality effectively stifles their ability to do their best work. And I know from numerous off-the-record discussions with numerous NASA employees that most people at NASA agree with this.
Letting private companies compete to provide the U.S. government the services and products for getting into space is the fastest, cheapest, and most effective way to build a robust aerospace industry. In fact, it is this very approach that built the United States. It is also the approach that takes the best advantage of freedom, by not dictating from above the kinds of designs these competing companies must use. Instead anything anyone comes up with that works is acceptable. Such freedom encourages innovation, which in a new industry is absolutely essential in order to discover the best ways to do things.
Thus, the proposal by the Obama administration — to shut the NASA manned space program down and then subsidize private companies to help jumpstart them so that they can eventually replace and even improve upon NASA — is identical to my own beliefs.
The problem is that I simply do not believe the Obama administration. Everything I have learned about the current President, including the specifics (or lack thereof) of his proposal, tells me that none of his promises are going to be fulfilled.
First, Obama himself has previously expressed a hostility to NASA and the space program. Early in the campaign in 2007, when he was not yet well known and could be more up front about his real beliefs, he stated that he believed NASA was a low priority and that the money would be better used to fund education programs. Though his more recent speeches have lauded the importance of space exploration, they have not been convincing to me. His words have seemed hollow and cliched.
My doubts were further substantiated by the new National Space Policy announced in early July. As I noted then, the sense I got “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.” More proof came with the statements of NASA administrator Charles Bolden shortly thereafter in his interview with al-Jazeera. His priorities — as expressly assigned to him by President Obama — was to inspire kids, improve international relations, and help the Muslim world, not invigorate the American private aerospace industry and explore the solar system.
Then there is the Obama administration proposal itself. As it is often said, the devil is in the details. A close look strongly suggests that the subsidies for the new private companies will never occur.
First, the details are vague, if non-existent. The budget plans say the administration wants to commit a lot of money to several high-technology flagship missions, but lay out absolutely no specifics on what those flagship missions will be. Nor do they provide any specifics for how they intend to help the new private space companies develop the manned capabilities to replace the shuttle.
Second, the way the Obama plan was announced and marketed has demonstrated how incredibly tone deaf this administration is to political needs. The decision to kill both the shuttle program and the Constellation program at the same time is wrenchingly drastic, especially during these very bad economic times. Obama is putting tens of thousands of people out of work at a time when new jobs and new investment are hard to find. And he is doing it in many Congressional districts that face reelection in November.
The death of both these programs at the same time also leaves the United States very vulnerable. It will be years before we will once again have a capability for putting humans into space. In the interim, we will have to rely on Russia to get our astronauts to our own space station, which instantly raises some serious national security issues.
Thus, it is not surprising that almost no elected official has come out publicly to support the Obama plan. Instead, the reaction from Congress has been loud and extraordinarily hostile. In fact, the Obama administration has played the political game so badly that it is very possible Congress will not approve anything they propose, and will instead try to push back with their own proposals that will make a mess of everything.
From a political perspective, I might have believed the sincerity of the Obama administration proposal, including the decision to cancel Constellation, had they simultaneously announced that they would extend the shuttle program a few years until the new private companies could get up to speed. Such a compromise would have gone over well in Congress, as it would have eased the job losses. It would have eliminated the need to rely on the Russians to reach orbit. It would eased the transition from the government manned program to the private manned program. And it would have demonstrated that the administration really does consider manned space exploration important. The result: the administration would have probably had little problem selling the proposal to Congress, thereby increasing the chances that the money would have been there to fund the development of the new private rockets and spacecraft.
Instead, Obama wants to shut everything down, immediately. He is resisting any compromise proposals being offered by Congress, even from members of his own Democratic Party. And he has issued a new national space policy that suggests space exploration is the least important thing NASA does.
Thus, in the end, I do not believe that the Obama administration has any real interest in stimulating the aerospace industry so that the United States can be a strong player in the exploration of the solar system. Instead, I conclude from their actions that they intend to kill that industry, thereby also killing the ability of America to explore space.
It is for this reason I have been so critical of the Obama budget proposal. And until I see some indication that the administration finally recognizes that their proposal is causing terrible havoc in the American aerospace community, I will have no reason to change my mind.