Does NASA have an international future?
by Taylor Dinerman
|As long as NASA cannot maintain a serious large-scale program that can last more than one administration, it is hard to see how it can be taken seriously as a solid long-term partner by foreign space agencies.|
Ever since Bill Clinton turned Ronald Reagan’s Space Station Freedom program into the ISS in 1993, the program has thrived in spite of its many critics and in the face of costly delays and the aftermath of the Columbia disaster. It exists today and it is a marvelous example of what America can do when it wants to. The international partners have performed well, but without the US the thing never would have been built.
In contrast, in 2002 NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe canceled the Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) development program due to what he said were budget problems. Germany had invested considerable time and money to design a nose cone for the CRV, and this investment was lost.
Yet the CRV fiasco was a minor glitch compared to the 1981 cancellation of the US-European International Solar Polar Mission (ISPM). This was one of he most ambitious heliophysics missions ever proposed. In the first months of the Reagan administration, budget cuts forced NASA to cancel either the space telescope, the Galileo Jupiter mission, or the ISPM. The Europeans vigorously protested the cancellation: they had assumed that the US would follow their tradition, which was (and is) to never cancel any international program no matter how much stress this puts on purely national programs.
Since then the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA have successfully cooperated on several solar physics missions, including the long running SOHO probe and now the potentially spectacular Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft launched last month. Yet even after thirty years, ESA has not forgotten, or forgiven, what happened to the ISPM.
Another European disappointment was the Spacelab module, which flew far fewer missions than ESA had hoped. At least that program led the way for Italy to become proficient at building space structures. The science work that had been planned had to be abandoned, leaving NASA with yet another blot on its international record.
The US has a fundamental problem with the way it designs and builds long-term civilian science and technology programs. It is simply too easy for an administration to propose a new project, if Congress agrees to get funding. But there is nothing that obliges any future administration to continue any particular program. Even worse, there is no sense among politicians or civil servants that once a program has begun it is wise to finish it. A nation with a reputation for never finishing what it starts will find few genuine partners for any of its major projects.
One of the worst examples of this was the cancellation in 1993 of the Superconducting Super Collider, a giant particle physics project that was voted down by a Congress anxious to deal a blow to what was then known as “Big Science”. Since then America’s standing in this branch of science has fallen from a place of indisputable leadership to one of parity with Europe and Japan. CERN in Geneva is world’s premier center for this research and the technological benefits that go along with it have long been lost.
|The US has a fundamental problem with the way it designs and builds long-term civilian science and technology programs. There is nothing that obliges any future administration to continue any particular program.|
Though the problem may appear to be political, it might be a good idea to look at the structural roots of this phenomenon. The US has never been able to put together a “Capital Improvement Budget”. The Pentagon can occasionally put together a multi-year program, but they are generally restricted to items that have been in production for many years and whose cost structure is well understood by the procurement bureaucracy and industry. Ambitious science and technology projects fall well outside this category.
The negative reaction by some in Congress to the proposed cancellation of the Constellation program could be seen as an opportunity for the US legislature to rethink the way it funds these big long-term programs. It should not be beyond the ability of Congress to pass a budget law designating certain programs as “settled” and immunizing them from the normal year-to-year political flux. The fact that such programs would deprive Congress of its ability to fine-tune annual policy would insure that these programs would be rare indeed and would have to be especially valuable.
Such a change in the system would, over the long term, make the US a leading partner in global science and technology projects, not only due to the excellence of our researchers and the size of our budgets, but due to America’s reliability. Otherwise we will continue to be seen as a dangerous and unstable ally, liable to quit any project with the slightest shift in the political winds.