The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Hillary Clinton
While promising to increase research budgets at other agencies, Clinton left NASA off the list, suggesting any increases for specific NASA programs will come at the expense of others. (credit: Hillary Clinton for President)

Hillary Clinton’s civil space policy

Senator Clinton’s space policy looks pretty good, but as we learned in the years 1993 through 2001, one always has to pay very close attention to every word and every comma. Nowhere in the policy, for example, is there a commitment to spending more on NASA. In her October 4th speech on science policy she promised to “increase support for basic and applied research by increasing the research budgets at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Defense.” Notice the absence of NASA.

Meanwhile, she did say that she would “make the financial investments in research and development necessary to shore up and expand our competitive edge.” That implies that she would, at the very least, restore NASA’s aeronautics budget to its pre-2004 level. That means finding an extra half billion dollars. Without making any commitment to an overall increase in the agency’s budget, it’s hard to see how this could be done without cutting into the budgets for science and exploration.

Nowhere in the policy is there a commitment to spending more on NASA overall.

We should all welcome it when her campaign says, “Hillary is committed to a space exploration program that involves robust human spaceflight to complete the Space Station and later human missions, expanded robotic spaceflight probes of our solar system leading to future human exploration, and enhanced space science activities.” While there is no specific promise to go back to the Moon, her open-ended commitment to “future human exploration” would seem to put her squarely behind the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). The 2005 NASA authorization bill passed the Senate unanimously, and by a very wide margin in the House, thus putting an unmistakable bipartisan stamp on the Vision.

This year, while the Congress has so far voted for a decent funding package for the space agency, it comes pretty late and may be vetoed if Congress and the President cannot come to an agreement on overall spending. The continuation resolution under which NASA’s 2007 funding was identical to its 2006 funding has already done some moderate damage to the overall program. The gap between the shuttle retirement in 2010 and the first operational flight of the Orion capsule has already grown from three to four years to four to five years—at best.

This makes Mrs. Clinton’s promise that she will “will capitalize on the expertise of the current Shuttle program workforce and will not allow a repeat of the ‘brain drain’ that occurred between the Apollo and shuttle missions” all the more critical. From the point of view of Florida politics this sounds pretty good, but without a very large and rapid increase in NASA’s top-line budget it will be impossible for her to keep it.

A lot of the specialized expertise in the workforce at the Kennedy Space Center is not transferable to the elements of the Constellation program. Some of the knowledge and skills of the workers may seem to be appropriate to the new systems, but the devil is in the details. For example, the differences between the current four-segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) used on the shuttle and the future five-segment SRBs to be used on Ares 1 and 5 may seem trivial, but that may not turn out to be the case. The control mechanisms, the aerodynamics, and the stresses on the new rockets may be so different from the old ones that hard-won expertise on the current systems may be useless when dealing with the new ones. Today’s workforce would have to be retrained and recertified to be able to safely cope with the new boosters.

NASA has learned the hard way that it cannot take anything for granted. It thought that it and its contractors had an excellent understanding of solid rocket missile technology based on many years of work on Minuteman ICBMs and on several generations of submarine-launched ballistic missiles. In 1986 the Challenger accident showed them how wrong they were.

The men and women who run our launch facilities in Florida and elsewhere need to be given the training and the support needed to keep launching astronauts and payloads safely and efficiently for many years to come. Assumptions about their skills cannot be permitted to substitute for careful examination of real future workforce requirements.

Despite lacking a solid promise to return to the Moon and to build and outpost there, Hillary Clinton’s space policy is nonetheless an improvement over her husband’s.

The biggest problem, and one that Clinton’s campaign document touches on, is a declining workforce. She mentions it in the context of aeronautics but the space industry seems to be facing an even worse dilemma. How can enough trained and motivated young people be attracted into the space industry if the prospects for future activities depend on year-to-year “Perils of Pauline” budgeting? In 1993, the first year of her husband’s administration, the US House came within a single vote of canceling the space station. How can a young student devote his or her life to a program that may be done away with at any time, at the whim of a gaggle of politicians?

Despite lacking a solid promise to return to the Moon and to build and outpost there, Hillary Clinton’s space policy is nonetheless an improvement over her husband’s. Until Bush came up with the VSE, NASA was reduced to using euphemisms such as “accessible planetary surfaces” when they meant to say the Moon and Mars. Today NASA has a fairly clear direction and is, within the limits of what is possible for any government bureaucracy, headed in the right direction. The junior senator from New York’s policy is probably the best and most realistic one we can expect from a Democrat. As for the GOP, stay tuned.