2009: a space vision
Variables facing the Vision for Space Exploration over the next four years
by Chris Carberry
|President Bill Clinton’s terms in office were accompanied by declining NASA budgets and a perceived lack of vision for the future of the space program. This certainly does not mean that the same trend would prevail during a Hillary Clinton presidency, however.|
Senator John McCain has always been a supporter of space exploration and until recently had influence on NASA as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee. Although he did show some skepticism following President Bush’s announcement in January 2004, by August he stated, “I think it is not only visionary, but doable.” (McCarthy, John. “McCain Speech Packs in Crowd” Florida Today, August 5, 2004). This would be consistent with the reaction that members of The Mars Society received when they approached him during the 2000 presidential campaign: he seemed enthusiastic about the concept of humans to Mars.
Some familiar faces from the 2004 election have hinted that they might be throwing their hats in the ring. Senator John Kerry recently ran with an uninspiring space platform that seemed to be an attempt to shift NASA back to the unfocused days of the 1990s. Would an additional four years focus Kerry’s message?
Democratic Chairman Howard Dean actually expressed support for the concept for a human mission to Mars. In an online interview for the Washington Post and Concord Monitor he stated, “We should aggressively begin a program to have manned flights to Mars. This of course assumes that we can change Presidents so we can have a balanced budget again.” Does his support of the program depend on a balanced budget? If so, it would probably be a long time before we leave LEO in a Dean administration.
The rest of the people mentioned are relatively unknown quantities with regard to the space program. Condoleezza Rice, Rudolph Giuliani, and Senator Joseph Biden have not had a lot to say on the topic. However, recent history does favor the Republicans. Obviously, it was a Republican president who initiated the new vision, and back in 2000, the Republican platform called for “exploration of Mars and the rest of the solar system”. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan also strongly supported NASA (although it was a Republican, Richard Nixon, that cancelled the Apollo program). In contrast, the two most recent Democratic presidents (Presidents Carter and Clinton) were not strong supporters of NASA, particularly ambitious human exploration programs. Regardless of whether the next president is a Democrat or a Republican, none of the most likely candidates have been outspoken supporters for the Vision.
A major variable that will impact the next president’s decision-making will be how far NASA has proceeded. The more solid progress made towards the Vision before the end of the current administration, the more likely the program will have the momentum to survive future administrations and congresses. In other words, NASA administrator, Dr. Michael Griffin has just 3½ years to produce significant and concrete progress on the Vision. Fortunately, Dr. Griffin already seems to be quite cognizant of this and has begun to take some of the steps that may be required to build immunity to would-be budget cutters.
He has made strong statements supporting an acceleration of the Vision, including early retirement of the Shuttle, accelerating the development of the crew exploration vehicle (CEV), creation of a heavy lift capability, ways to utilize the private sector. Dr. Griffin has also begun a management shakeup, which will hopefully lead to a more efficiently run program.
Another vital mission that Griffin has to achieve during his tenure is to dispel the $1-trillion myth. Since President Bush announced the Vision, pundits have been disseminating rumors that trips back to the Moon and then on to Mars will cost up to $1 trillion. In a recent press release by the Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), CAGW President Tom Schatz stated, “A manned mission to Mars is of questionable scientific value and could cost up to $1 trillion.” While I have no doubt that NASA could find a way to spend $1 trillion on this program (some of these numbers are loosely based on the Space Exploration Initiative of the early 1990s, a program that was estimated to cost almost half a trillion dollars), the CAGW argument is not even remotely based on fact.
|The more solid progress made towards the Vision before the end of the current administration, the more likely the program will have the momentum to survive future administrations and congresses.|
Unfortunately, unless these false numbers are effectively discredited with credible cost estimates, they will continue to linger in the public debate. It would appear that Dr. Griffin has already begun this process. In a recent visit to JSC, he stated that, “You will find that NASA received as much in the last 16 years of its existence as in the first 16… In my judgment, we can go to the Moon. We can go to Mars. We can’t do them quite as quickly as we did during Apollo, but we can do it.” (AP Pam Easton, May 31, 2005). If he is correct, the grand total would not come remotely close to $1 trillion.
As is usually the case, public opinion will play a role in the future president’s policies. Polls taken since President Bush announced the Vision have been mixed. In a Gallup poll taken in July 2004, it showed that 68 percent of people supported the Vision, but others haven’t been as positive. However, Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson reported some interesting data during a lecture for the National Space Society in New York City on April 4. Dr. Tyson, a member of the President’s Commission on the Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, mentioned that the Commission did some polling after the Vision was announced. When those polled were asked whether they supported the concept of Moon, Mars, and beyond, they were evenly divided with 48 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed to the new Vision. When President Bush’s name was mentioned in relation to this plan, only 43 percent were in favor and 52 percent were opposed. This illustrates a serious issue. As Tyson stated at this same meeting, “Our space presence has become political issue.”
It is not difficult to find evidence of this even in the pro-space community on various blogs. Some people believe that the Vision is nothing more than an elaborate plot by President Bush to destroy NASA. While the number of space advocates that hold this belief is probably rather small, it is symptomatic of how passionate opposition to President Bush can impact public opinion regarding the human missions to the Moon and Mars.
|When those polled were asked whether they supported the concept of Moon, Mars, and beyond, they were evenly divided with 48 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed to the new Vision. When President Bush’s name was mentioned in relation to this plan, only 43 percent were in favor and 52 percent were opposed.|
Although the major space advocacy organizations have had similar messages over the years, they have always argued about details—almost like sects of a religion engaging in warfare over rituals. This needs to change. Although the space advocacy community has little or no control over the national and international events that could have an impact on political support for NASA (terrorism, economic problems, another space shuttle accident), they need to control the areas in which they can have an influence. They must work together to guarantee that the future president, as well as the present and future Congresses (the 2006 Congressional elections are coming up), are provided a clear and concise message, one that will explain that the Vision is not just a flight of fancy by President Bush. It is not only technically and financially feasible, but also extremely important to the future of the United States. The space advocacy community must play leading role in disseminating this message. However, it has to be undertaken in a more sophisticated and unified manner than has been attempted in the past.
While this is just a brief look at some of the variables that may impact the space program in the years leading up to Inauguration Day in 2009, it is clear that a great deal must be accomplished to better solidify support for The Vision for Space Exploration. This will not be accomplished by any one player in the space community, but must be achieved by the combined efforts of all organizations and individuals who believe in humanity’s future in space. If we fail to do this, we can only blame ourselves if this Vision disappears.