Rebuilding the American space program — the right way


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In reading my post, Both for and against the Obama plan, reader Trent Waddington emailed me to say that this “is so fatalistic that it seems you don’t think it is worthwhile even spending a few minutes explaining why the policy is good. It’s easy to dismiss something a politician says as the stopped clock that is right twice a day. It’s harder to set aside your skepticism and explain why something is good policy.”

Trent is absolutely correct. What I wrote was very depressing and fatalistic. However, I think it very important to be coldly honest about things, no matter how bad they look. Once you’ve done that, you then have the right information necessary for fixing the situation.

My problem with most of the debate about the future space policy of the United States, — as well as innumerable other modern issues faced by our government — is that people don’t seem to want to face up to the reality of the problem. In the case of space and Obama, I doubt any advice, gentle or otherwise, is going to move him into putting forth a plan for NASA that has any realistic chance of getting passed by Congress. As I noted in a different post, he doesn’t play the game. He acts like the worst sort of autocrat, convinced that if he simply says what he wants to do, everyone must agree.

The reason the good part of his plan (commercial space) is not passing Congress is not because people think it is a bad idea. It is being rejected because Obama has done such a bad political job of selling it in terms that Congress can accept. This doesn’t mean you explain the beauty of the plan. Congress (sadly) doesn’t really care about that. They are only interested in what can get them votes.

Thus, you have to give Congress something that will also give them those votes, in return for passing your plan. This is basic negotiations 101.

From my perspective extending the shuttle program would have been a beautiful trade off to give Congress in exchange for canceling Constellation and giving the money to commercial space. It would have reduced the job losses in their districts. It would have filled the gap that Congress knows is upsetting the voters. It would have pumped money into the aerospace industry. And it would have been a very temporary and limited extension of the government-run space program until the private sector developed its own rockets and capsules to compete and sell on the open market. Congress could have swallowed Constellation’s cancellation had they been thrown this bone.

Instead, Obama threw them nothing, and they are thus trying to throw nothing right back at him.

Now that I have outlined the problem in blunt detail, is there anything we can do about it? Unfortunately, at this time it has probably become impossible to extend the shuttle, so that option no longer exists. Worse, though all the Congressional bills presently under consideration seem willing to pump some money into both Constellation and the commercial space program that Obama favors, there simply isn’t sufficient capital to make either viable. Remember, the government is bankrupt.

The result, sadly, is that we are faced for the next few years with a confused and incoherent space policy that will likely accomplish little but spend an awful lot of money doing it. In the interim, we will be dependent on the Russians to get our astronauts to ISS, and the Europeans and Japanese to get cargo there. Eventually, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences will get their cargo systems up and running, but neither will come close to matching our needs, as provided for so many years by the shuttle.

As for going back to the Moon, to Mars, or the asteroids, let us please get real. We will not be doing any of these things for many decades. Just getting Americans back into orbit will be challenge enough.

Eventually the only way I see us fixing this mess is for the American public to literally fire the elected officials who created it. Nor am I partisan in my desire for change. Though the Democrats in control of Congress today deserve more of the blame (and should therefore receive more of the punishment), the Republicans were the ones who approved Bush’s absurd plan of retiring the shuttle four years before a replacement was ready. Both parties are at fault. Both should be fired.

As a country we need to elect new people into office, with a fresh outlook willing to jettison all the old ideas of the past.

And one of the first ideas that these new elected officials should immediately jettison is that it is the government and only the government that is capable of getting humans into space. Not only is this idea absurd, it flies in the face of our country’s entire history. The reason the United States of America became the most wealthy and powerful nation in the world is not because we had an effective government able to do things, but because we kept that government small, limited, and out of our lives.

Unfortunately, that is not the kind of government we have today (which might explain why we are about to lose our capability to fly humans in space). Today, our government is bloated, unwieldy, interfering, and stifling. And worse, the people running it are unwilling or unable to face the problem and deal with it.

More than any other time in our history, we need to go back to constitutional roots. We need to shrink our government, restrict its power, and liberate our citizens from its grasp so they can exercise their creativity, as freely as possible.

And we need to do it, as fast as possible.

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3 comments

  • Joe

    The shuttle could conceivably be extended to fill the gap by the continuing resolution clause currently in effect. If the NASA budget is not signed by Congress, then NASA gets funded at the previous year’s funding for previous year’s programs, i.e., shuttle and some Constellation.

    Before striking this down again as you did in your post, imagine this happening for some time until a shuttle is lost. Who is to blame for the political decision to extend the shuttle? No one, because no one could agree on what to spend on future NASA funding.

    The other interesting thing to consider is if Congress agrees to extend the shuttle at the detriment of Constellation and the gap goes away and a shuttle is eventually lost, then who is to blame for the political decision to extend the shuttle? The ones who voted to extend the shuttle.

    Interesting dilemma?

  • Kelly Starks

    > .. The reason the good part of his plan (commercial space) is not passing Congress is not
    > because people think it is a bad idea…

    To be fair to congress (I feel so dirty saying that) many really do think its a colossally bad idea, is not a backhanded way to eliminate the US space program and NASA. There are good historic adn logical reasons to think this.

    What surprizes me more – is they care enough to take a stand on it?

  • I have to ask. If it’s going to take decades for a government agency to put men on any place in the solar system worth prospecting, why bother with a space program at all? Just let the private sector handle it.

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