New Zimmerman op-ed at American Greatness


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Link here. To my readers some of this will seem familiar. To those who listened to my last appearance on the Space Show, it will also seem familiar. I decided what I had written and said in both places needed a more detailed essay. Key quote:

Every single big space project since the founding of NASA has always been proposed and approved by elected officials. NASA officials might have lobbied for one version or another, but always, always, it was understood and accepted that the project did not exist without first getting an enthusiastic and very public authorization from elected officials.

What was understood without question was that the right to make these fundamental policy decisions belonged only to the lawmakers, elected as they were by the citizenry under the Constitution.

NASA’s new Lunar Gateway project, however, is something altogether different. It was conceived, designed, and proposed by the big aerospace companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing as a justification for the continuing construction of SLS and Orion. It was added as a budget line item by NASA bureaucrats who supported it, and it now exists as a growing major space project comparable to Apollo, the Space Shuttle, ISS, and SLS/Orion.

Yet no president has ever officially and publicly proposed the Lunar Gateway. No Congress ever reviewed or endorsed the program. All these elected officials have done is simply to accept the will of NASA bureaucrats and large aerospace contractors, and rubber-stamp that line item in NASA’s budget.

Thus, unlike all past big space projects, Gateway stands alone as the only one to be proposed and approved not by our elected officials, but by the vendors who will build it and by the unelected NASA bureaucrats who will manage it.

Worse, Gateway’s growing year-by-year funding and development is being controlled not by lawmakers or the president but by those very same bureaucrats.

Essentially, this is a coup by NASA’s bureaucracy and the big space contractors over the power of elected officials.

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10 comments

  • TMLutas

    The people have the power to fix this. We do not have to wait for elected officials to act. We merely need to deploy the computers we already have to demand that 537 people rate every dollar as a priority level. Let’s keep it simple and just use rating one through ten. Ten percent of last years spent monies can be priority one, another ten percent priority two and so on.

    Acquiescence becomes irrelevant. Instead, the question becomes what are the dollars that are going to the Lunar Gateway priority? Items that are rated priority 10 by a working majority of both houses and by the President become ground zero for budget cuts. If the line item’s funds rate highly, well, you now have a list of supporters.

    But we don’t ask such questions, not about the space budget, not about any budget really.

  • Kieran A. Carroll

    Robert, your main argument is based on a false premise: that politicians (Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Carter, Clinton, various congress-people) conceived the ideas for the main US space programs over the years (Apollo, Shuttle, ISS, Constellation, etc.). You use the term “proposed and approved by elected officials.” It is certainly true that elected officials were the ones to *champion* these programs, and to introduce the legislation to authorize and to fund them. However, the initial *proposals* for these programs came not from politicians, but from engineers — a myriad of space-exploration-minded engineers who have been working towards these types of projects for many decades, conceiving and talking amongst themselves about various ways to carry them out, and trying (usually unsuccessfully) to get politicians interested in them. But nonetheless continuing to offer them to politicians, who (very infrequently) take them up on the offers. As it happens, I knew one of the engineers (Owen Maynard) who was part of the small team within Project Mercury’s Space Task Group, who conceived several ideas for post-Mercury programs, to be offered by their boss (Mercury program director Robert Gilruth) to NASA’s Administrator, in case the President might have an appetite for more spaceflight work after Mercury. As it happens, there was a brief window in which President Kennedy was looking for a way to save face politically after being embarrassed by the Soviet Union, and the ideas from Gilruth’s team were in the right place at the right time for him to seize on — he chose the Moon landing program instead of the Mars landing one, or the Space Station one, and Apollo happened.

    The point is that spaceflight is a technically very complicated endeavour, the details of which are beyond the comprehension of most non-engineers (including virtually all politicians). Most politicians are just not in a position to *conceive of* any sort of feasible activity in space. They have to trust what the engineers working for them offer them, and select from those offerings.

    The same story played out for Shuttle, and ISS, and basically almost every other major space endeavour flown by the US and other countries (until the time of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos). The politicians *need* large teams of skilled engineers to spend significant time and effort coming up with future mission concepts, and fleshing out the details of those into actionable proposals. Some of those are government engineers, but many more of them are in industry, and academia, and in some cases private individuals. The work they do usually spreads out for many years, often decades, before politicians actually get involved, and are distinctly international — the Apollo program’s routes are arguably in the work that young Werner von Braun did as a member of the VfR rocket club in Berlin in the 1930s.

    The process that led to the Lunar Gateway program proposal is not very different from that. Managers in space agencies from around the world started getting together over 15 years ago to map out a coordinated space exploration roadmap, in which various countries could contribute various elements to various missions, in an ISS-like approach. They in turn hired various industry and academic contractors to set their engineers to work in fleshing out the various scenarios. They then offered those results to their various political masters, in the USA, Canada, Europe, Japan, etc., hoping they’d be willing to support the program they were suggesting — a core element of which is the Lunar Gateway.

    Of course, it is entirely up to the elected officials to decide whether or not to agree to that program, and to fund it. The Canadian government has officially decided to do so, with Canada’s Prime Minister announcing that a couple of months ago, and the recent Canadian federal budget including money to get Canada’s contribution started. The US President has agreed to the first teps of the Gateway program (via his appointed NASA Administrator, whose proposals the President’s staff vets carefully every year), and the US Congress has agreed to fund the first steps in this as well (the Gateway Power and Propulsion Module, plus of course the SLS and Orion, which have been heavily backed by the US Senate).

    Given that, it’s hard to see this as a “coup by the bureaucracy”, any more than Project Apollo was. The details of how the engineers got funded to come up with their ideas were some different in each case, but not terribly different.

    Now, the next step is indeed for the political class to actually spend some time thinking about whether the Lunar Gateway approach is a good idea, before they cast their votes for or against funding it. And they have all the opportunity in the world to weigh in on that, to debate it, to seek out alternatives, to weight the pros and cons of different ideas for different programs, etc. It would be nice to see politicians actually engage with space exploration thinking, more than they usually do! Maybe there *are* better ways forward than via the Gateway — Bob Zubrin makes a case for a much more cost-effective “Moon Direct” plan, for example. (Although certain key Senators would fight that, in order to keep SLS and Orion dollars flowing in their states.) And in the end, NASA just wants to move forward on human spaceflight, and will implement *any* (feasible) program that the politicians are willing to approve.

  • wodun

    Essentially, this is a coup by NASA’s bureaucracy and the big space contractors over the power of elected officials.

    There are a lot of problems with our traditional government contractors, with NASA administration, and with our politicians but this isn’t a coup of any metaphor.

    The President sets the direction of NASA through the appointment of an administrator and congress controls what money NASA gets while also providing oversight. NASA hasn’t gone rogue but that was an interesting gambit, sort of a reverse psychology angle.

    Personally, I wish people would just present alternatives and argue on the merits. A problem is that everyone wants to do different things, so the first argument is either over which thing to do or in accepting that the larger thing can’t be changed and looking at the alternatives for what can be changed.

    Sometimes working in the box is where the inspiration for creativity comes from.

  • Edward

    Kieran A. Carroll,
    I believe that your main argument is based on a false premise: that politicians are rocket scientists. Or at least that they are the equivalent of the “myriad of space-exploration-minded engineers who have been working towards these types of projects for many decades.

    Even social, educational, health, safety, and other programs are not the brainchildren of politicians but of their aides or of others who work in those respective fields. Virtually all bills that are proposed originate not from a politician but from his constituents who want their own problem solved. If people think that Johnny can’t read, then we obviously need a department of education, right?

    But you missed Robert’s point even while you stated it. There have been many proposals from the engineers that the politicians did not champion, and so those proposals did not get very far. Now we have a situation in which an unchampioned proposal to spend tens of billions of dollars over the next decade or two is being worked on as though it had the full approval, after careful consideration and debate, of the president and of Congress. Spending is being authorized without any such due diligence.

    Rather than our elected representatives choosing whether or not to solve a perceived problem, bureaucrats are choosing to solve it with an expensive and useless endeavor.

    Robert asked: “How does Bill Gerstenmaier have the right to ‘develop policy for the space agency?’

    Congress has handed over many of its own rights and responsibilities to bureaucrats. Bureaucrats were given the ability to create rules and regulations that have the power of law. We can be fined or jailed for breaking a bureaucratic rule or regulation, not just a law.

    There once was a time when Congress approved every bond issue, but as they continued to overspend they found that process to be too time consuming, so now they only approve a debt cap and allow the Federal Reserve bureaucrats to determine the amount of bond debt to issue and when. It is the equivalent of Congress giving itself a credit card and spending as though they don’t bother to look at the monthly statement. They have even given it to the children that they are supposed to watch over, so the kids are spending like there is no tomorrow in which it has to be paid back. Worse, it isn’t as though it is their money that they are committing to pay sometime in the far distant future, it is ours, so they don’t care, just so long as this spending gets them what they want today.

    We the People have a Constitution that hands off our governance to representatives, who supposedly are responsible to those who elect them. However, our representatives have handed off our governance to bureaucrats who are supposedly responsible to the president. (Wait. Did I just say that the legislative branch gave much of their power to the executive branch?)

    As with a monarchy, unelected officials are running the country with Congressional and presidential rubber stamps of approval. Unlike a monarchy, there are many unelected officials running the country, and they are not as coordinated as a monarch would be.

    No wonder the government is spending so much more money than it takes in.

  • mkent

    Oh boy. A lot of misunderstanding on this thread already, beginning with the main article.

    First, as Kieran A. Carroll has already mentioned, Apollo wasn’t conceived of or proposed by the politicians in either the White House or the Congress. It was proposed by NASA bureaucrat George M. Low in a meeting between him, NASA administrator Thomas Paine (IIRC), President Kennedy, and others. Kennedy accepted the proposal and gave a speech, but he didn’t originate it.

    Second, the Gateway is not a policy, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it wasn’t the subject of a major Presidential speech. The Gateway is the implementation of a policy (SPD-1) signed by President Trump during an event in the Oval Office. SPD-1, among other things, directed NASA to return astronauts to the moon before sending them to Mars.

    Third, the budget for the Gateway is not tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. The budget for the Gateway is $6.6 billion, and that’s the eight-element version of the Gateway that would serve as a transportation hub for manned lunar landers and as the in-space dockyard for the construction, checkout, and maintenance of the manned Deep Space Transport to send astronauts to Mars. The “minimal” Gateway to support the manned lunar landing in 2024 would be much less than that.

    All of this has been approved by the National Space Council (chaired by the Vice President) and the President’s Office of Management and Budget. It will be approved by the Congress via the NASA Authorization Act and paid for via the NASA and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act.

    This is how our federal government works. The President sets overarching policy, the National Space Council provides lower-level direction, the OMB approves the budget request, and the Congress authorizes the activity and funds it. Then NASA implements it. To see this as some type of NASA / Lockheed / Boeing coup is….out there. I can only assume you’ve been drinking too much SpaceX Kool-Aid.

  • wayne

    Choosing in Groups:
    “Analytical Politics Revisited” Public Choice Policy
    (Prof Michael C. Munger)
    2015
    https://youtu.be/JxtgUKoHewE
    (17:40 — excerpt)

  • spaceranger

    I worked on Orion prior to the first cancellation. We saw goals of the program steadily get deferred, with lunar landing going away then land landing as ongoing budgets kept getting trimmed and Constellation tried to adapt to the environment. What was really missing for a long time was the Altair lander, and after it was deferred we started seeing all of the asteroid rendezvous and other non-lunar landing concepts being posited as the program kept looking for other uses for Orion. I was skeptical about the lunar gateway concept at first but can see now that it fits into a reusable lunar lander high traffic model. What is of concern now, however, is the seeming internationalization of Orion/SLS, almost an extension of the ISS program. The ISS model, putting international partners in the critical path, is not an ideal way to manage projects and will not get us back to the moon in 5 years.

  • Max

    The 1.6 billion that Trump increased to NASA last week, was merely the down payment of 8 billion a year for five years with the purpose of getting his name in the history books before the end of his second term. Why? For putting a woman on the Moon by 2024… Motivation of purely political in nature. No new science or objective in mind.

    We all know that it won’t/can’t happen. That bureaucracy will drag its feet for 20 years.
    If Congress is willing to pay 40 billion to start a project, they will pay 100 billion to finish it… Some day.
    https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/danvergano/trump-nasa-moon-landing-billions

    Space X, Jeff Bezos, and Bigelow will be having parties on the moon long before then. At one tenth the price or lower.

    “The emperor has no clothes”
    He knows it, he loves it, and dares anyone to challenge him about it!

  • wayne

    Quantum Consciousness:
    The Emperor’s New Mind –
    Dr. Roger Penrose 1989
    https://youtu.be/PjFEnbKttqc
    47:45

  • Edward

    mkent,
    You wrote: “Oh boy. A lot of misunderstanding on this thread already, beginning with the main article.

    It seems to me that you have misunderstood quite a bit of what was written.

    Apollo wasn’t conceived of or proposed by the politicians in either the White House or the Congress.

    Robert wrote that it was first publicly proposed by the president. Very little of what happens in Congress or the White House originates with an elected official. Even when a problem needs to be solved, their staffs tend to present possible solutions rather than the elected official come up with solutions.

    Gateway is not a policy

    But project Apollo, the Space Shuttle, the Space Station, SLS, and Orion are policies? These are projects that implement the solutions to the problems that policy creates (policy: go to the Moon; problem: how?; solution: project Apollo; new problem: how do we live, work, and maneuver in space?; solution: project Gemini). Go to the Moon by the end of the decade; easy and frequent access to low Earth orbit; low Earth orbit exploration, experimentation, and continuous manned presence; Apollo class heavy-lift capability; manned cislunar exploration are the policies that these projects fulfill.

    The budget for the Gateway is $6.6 billion, and that’s the eight-element version of the Gateway that would serve as a transportation hub for manned lunar landers and as the in-space dockyard for the construction … The ‘minimal’ Gateway to support the manned lunar landing in 2024 would be much less than that.

    Are you suggesting that this will be the first on-budget manned program in NASA’s history? That budget is only slightly less than the original ISS budget (back when it was space station Freedom). Construction costs ended up approaching $100 billion, ten times the original budget. (James Webb Space Telescope is an unmanned version of this same budgetary cluster bleep.)

    Gateway is supposed to be a gateway to the rest of the solar system, so we cannot use the ‘minimal’ lunar landing version as the budgetary benchmark.

    All of this has been approved by the National Space Council (chaired by the Vice President) and the President’s Office of Management and Budget.

    Conveniently avoiding consideration, debate, and due diligence by the president and Congress. Instead, we have bureaucrats at the OMB and a group led by the VP, who rides the coattails of the president during the election. What elected officials do the checking and the balancing? Just the VP. I suppose that is better than only bureaucrats, as he may want to run for elected office again, but it just isn’t the same as having the much more important president and Congress do their jobs.

    The President sets overarching policy, the National Space Council provides lower-level direction, the OMB approves the budget request, and the Congress authorizes the activity and funds it.

    I repeat, Congress rubber stamped the continuing resolution (we haven’t had a budget passed since Bush) without presidential and Congressional consideration, debate, and due diligence. This is Robert’s point.

    ISS had plenty of debate and consideration. Congress sent the original plan back to NASA as being too expensive, when the price of the Space Shuttle was factored in. When Obama tried to kill Constellation, Congress actively reinstated it as SLS and Orion. Elected officials knew what they wanted and why, and they had price tags in mind as well.

    This is how our federal government works.

    That was my point. The national government now works through bureaucrats and no longer through Congress and the president, as it is supposed to do. We don’t elect them to be rubber stamps, otherwise we wouldn’t need them at all.

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