Moon launches and circuses: seeking presidential leadership yet again
by Roger Handberg
|Presidential neglect—usually benign—is the normal pattern. Regardless, NASA persists in pushing for presidential attention, including possibly an endorsement.|
Second, the ever-present myth is that presidential leadership will lead NASA to the holy grail of program initiation and success. The much-misunderstood Apollo program was the prototype: a dashing young president leads the nation to the lunar surface in less than a decade. Reality has been much colder: presidents only occasionally look into NASA’s affairs, usually attracted by a mishap of varying proportions and seriousness. Those have included shuttle disasters (Challenger and Columbia), telescopes that cannot see straight (Hubble), or recurring budget issues. Several studies have explored the question of presidential leadership and found it much less significant than one would assume. Presidents matter, but not as much as may believe.
NASA is always accused of returning to the golden days of old, personified by a dashing young president, John Kennedy, and the successful 1969 landing on the lunar surface. The initiative announced by JFK was quickly overtaken by events even before his assassination, as presidential attention wandered to issues considered more pressing: civil rights, the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and a faltering economy. NASA spent over a decade arguing for the space station that President Ronald Reagan announced his support for in 1984, but that, in fact, translated into little actual presidential engagement.
Presidential neglect—usually benign—is the normal pattern. Regardless, NASA persists in pushing for presidential attention, including possibly an endorsement. In pursuit of presidential attention yet again, NASA is studying the possibility that the first all-up flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) would be a crewed flight sent on a flight around the Moon and back.
NASA’s current status is an agency in stasis, awaiting the new president’s engagement. That could be a long wait given other priorities and concerns. Regardless, NASA has chosen to act, on their supposition as to what will attract President Trump’s attention and, hopefully, support. Congressional support for the Obama Administration mission to an asteroid was already ambivalent at best. Returning to the Moon has acquired the aura of being the most potentially realistic step forward for ultimately reaching Mars or Europa, both locations being high on the list of possible locations for discovering life or at least signs of earlier life.
A Moon mission allows the incumbent president (whenever the actual return to the lunar surface occurs) to appear to be a leader reaching for the stars. Presidents enjoy those moments, but they rather abruptly pivot to other issues and battles. Going to the Moon is a diversion, presidentially speaking, but it would put NASA back on task. Assuming SpaceX and Boeing are able to transport crew and cargo to orbit, NASA will be truly free to pursue its prime directive: human space exploration.
|A Moon mission allows the incumbent president (whenever the actual return to the lunar surface occurs) to appear to be a leader reaching for the stars. Presidents enjoy those moments, but they rather abruptly pivot to other issues and battles.|
NASA’s decision, if it is carried through, to send crew on the first all-up SLS launch to the Mon and back is a gamble. Whether a gamble or not, NASA appears to have come to the conclusion that the political tides are running against the agency. Increasingly, congresses and presidents (of all political parties) are considering privatization and outsourcing as the space wave of the future. You see that in discussions of future space stations replacing the ISS, private with perhaps a NASA presence as a tenant. Space exploration in deep space, by robotic and crewed missions, remains NASA’s last ace. The political pressures to spin off space science and aviation to other agencies are becoming louder. By 2020, without an active human space exploration effort underway, NASA may be considered solely the logistical component for future Mars expeditions by private corporations or else be totally on the beach, a relic of the Cold War.
The agency still possesses the intellectual capital to mount deep space exploration efforts, but the delay in the next-generation launch vehicle grows longer. One result will be an attrition among the most talented, as the shuttle generation retires and the new one looks for more challenging alternatives. The SLS has taken time to develop, leaving the commercial crew flight option to the ISS to take center stage. Recent reports indicate those are encountering developmental issues, delaying their first flights to the ISS.
The ultimate irony is that the NASA tortoise may beat commercial ventures to orbit and beyond. That would reinvigorate the organization while not adversely impacting the commercial crew and privatization options desired by the Trump Administration. However, the possible delays in commercial crew have led Congress to consider that SLS be configured for ISS missions, a diversion of scarce energy and resources but possibly a mandatory one less the US lose access to the ISS. Recapturing momentum might become an issue but an easier one to handle if NASA possesses a viable active flight option for deep space exploration.
|No one ever said space exploration would be easy but most thought the perils were those of a hostile space environment, rather than politics.|
For NASA, the future is threatening, organizationally speaking, as the benign neglect typical of presidents and most of Congress can lead to atrophy. This proposed SLS first mission has some of the characteristics of the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome. The circus in this case is a bid by a marginal governmental organization to attract presidential attention and hopefully that of Congress. A flight failure with possible loss of the crew might be the proverbial third strike for NASA. Apollo 1 occurred off stage while Challenger and Columbia were visible failures. Both threatened the core public perception of NASA, that being the aura of can-do competence. The loss of an Orion capsule at any point would stamp “finished” on the agency. That does not mean US human spaceflight would end, but would instead proceed with different institutional actors—possibly the Air Force, leading exploratory expeditions similar to Lewis and Clark in 1803.
Regardless, the price might be high but value gained, if successful, worth the risk. No one ever said space exploration would be easy but most thought the perils were those of a hostile space environment, rather than politics.