The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

US Congress
While the White House has unveiled its plans for NASA’s future, it’s up to Congress to go along with them—or not. (credit: J. Foust)

Space policy versus space politics: lessons for the future

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The biggest lesson from history is that to be effective, a new administration’s space policy must to be done quickly. The Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations all took their time and either formulated weak policies that more or less continued the programs of their predecessors, or, in the case of the current administration, wasted a year continuing to spend money on the existing program while formulating a policy that is now facing major resistance inside NASA and on Capitol Hill. In contrast, JFK came up with a historic and successful initiative within months of his inauguration.

The reality of Washington’s power politics is that NASA’s budget is controlled by a small number of senior politicians who sit on the appropriations committees.

Any government policy that starts out by turning powerful senators and congressmen into bitter enemies is going to be exceptionally hard to carry out. For cosmically important issues involving national survival or economic doom, this might be acceptable if done personally by the president himself. Reagan’s March 1983 SDI (Star Wars) speech is a good example. NASA administrator Bolden’s February 1 budget announcement may go down in history as a textbook case of the wrong way to begin a dramatic and painful change in a government program.

The reality of Washington’s power politics is that NASA’s budget is controlled by a small number of senior politicians who sit on the appropriations committees and only occasionally listen to what their colleagues on the science committees have to say. Traditionally, critical decisions regarding NASA centers have been made by, or in cooperation with, the senior senator from the state involved. Killing Constellation, or attempting to do so, against the wishes of a senator such as Richard Shelby (R-AL) who not only sits on the appropriations committee, but may very well end up chairing it either in 2013 or maybe even 2011, is foolish in the extreme.

To make things worse Bolden and his team are proposing their changes in a way that directly challenges congressional prerogatives across the board, including its endorsement in previous authorization bills. To make matter worse they are ignoring the appropriations legislation signed last year by President Obama that forbids NASA from changing the Constellation program without congressional permission.

It might be a good idea for the reformers at NASA to consider a few lessons from the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, the most successful Democratic president in history. He did manage to make more than a few great changes, but he only moved when he had overwhelming popular and congressional support. In the months leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he played his political cards masterfully, and never moved an inch further than the American people were ready to tolerate. When the crisis came he was able to rally the nation in a way that no recent president has done.

The next administration should have a civil space policy ready to go on the first day. This means that during the election the opposition candidate and his or her team should make an issue of the negative impacts that the Obama space policy has inflicted on this nation and should promise to reverse it on January 21st of 2013 or 2017. A drive to get America back to the Moon should be the political centerpiece of this aspect of the campaign. Trying to sell the Flexible Path idea of missions to the Lagrange points or asteroids as a substitute can be easily made to look ridiculous compared to the simple lunar landing objective. If the president or his supporters try to explain by saying, “Been there, done that,” the reply is easy: “We have said to the world, can’t go there, can’t do that.”

The technology involved in the Constellation program was unexciting, but it was robust and reliable. Mike Griffin may have been a Hyman Rickover-type character, but he was getting the job done within the limits of the funds available. He concentrated on the Ares 1 and the Orion because they were what was needed first, also he knew that if NASA got the design of those two systems right, they rest of the systems, most notably the Ares 5, would be based on solid foundations. It remains to be seen if agency’s current leaders can come up with a better base on which to build their heavy-lift vehicle.

In 2004 the Aldridge Commission proposed that the US exploration program be based on the principle “Go as you pay.” Today we are facing the danger of years—maybe decades—of “Pay and go nowhere.”