Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Primer on Space Politics: The Vision Thing

Last month, when announcing the contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry Americans to the space station, instead of having to rely on Russia as we do now, Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator proclaimed:

“Today we’re one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia.”

Maybe it’s the use of the hallowed phrase “one step” in the mouth of the NASA administrator that seemed to gear us up for an inspiring announcement. But what he said after that phrase is utterly depressing, and baffling. How could we have let this happen that 50 years after sending people to the Moon we now can’t even get them into Low Earth Orbit?

The reason it has happened is simple: for decades there has not been any political vision for human space flight coming from our leaders. The quandary is that this lack of leadership coexists with a clear vision for how we will use space to enhance technology on the ground, and the less discussed but very real vision for how we will use space militarily, as I have written in the posts below. The big question is whether the former two space strategies will be met with an equivalent strategy for human space presence. 

Every modern U.S. President gives the big space speech where he lays out his Administration’s space policy objectives. These policies usually are just updated and tweaked versions of the previous administration’s policy, and they usually evoke the glory days of the Moonshot era. During his re-election in 2004, George W. Bush announced, “Human beings are headed into the cosmos.” This being an election, it was said by pundits at the time that George W. Bush was trying to show the electorate that he had what his father called “the vision thing.” It was not until 2006 when he finally completed his official space policy. This document called for a replacement vehicle for the shuttle, to return us to the Moon by 2020, and to send a robotic mission to Mars that would somehow study the feasibility of a human mission to the Red Planet. The Constellation program consisted of the Orion space craft (formerly Crew Exploration Vehicle) and launch vehicle Ares I (formerly the Crew Launch Vehicle) and would potentially carry humans to the Moon and Mars.

In any case, the Obama Administration scrapped and refashioned most of that plan. They kept the Orion capsule plan but canceled the Ares rocket. An Orion-type crew vehicle will sit atop Boeing’s old and Russian-made Atlas V, or the SpaceX Falcon9, in future launches. By 2025, we are supposed to begin crewed missions beyond the Moon, including to an asteroid. In the 2030s we are to send humans round trip to Mars and back. The Obama plan also calls for finding exoplanets and signs of life in the universe.

Another way that the space policy of subsequent administrations is generally consistent is the distance presidents keep putting between their time in office and the real tough goals. To truly match and surpass the glory of Kennedy’s Moonshot, humans will have to travel beyond lunar orbit. Like the old joke goes, Presidents agree that this can only happen 20 years from now, and it always will.

As anyone who has read Lee Billings 5 Billion Years of Solitude knows, millions or even billions of dollars are spent on designs for space ships and telescopes (and diverted from other promising designs) only to be canceled after a few years, when people realize how much it will cost to actually finish the project. The cycle is repeated over and over in every NASA department. The money wasted in the canceled projects would probably have been enough to fund to completion a set of project designs had they been nested within a single space policy vision from the beginning.

Will this cycle be broken? Granted, there are major recent achievements in space exploration, mainly on the robotic and telescope fronts. But what of human space flight? Have presidents figured out how to spin the politics of their space policy: make sure the GPS is working, send some robots to Mars and kick some money to the exoplanet finders, but always keep the Moonshot business 20 years in the future, an inspiring goal we’re never actually supposed to reach? Is it all just rhetoric to justify the aerospace industry’s existence? Or is it an actual achievable goal that in fact does justify the aerospace industry?

Maybe we will find out the answer only when the people get interested in space again. Until the public finds its passion for space exploration we can’t expect politicians to be passionate about it. Maybe we need to be inspired by non-terrestrial sources. Perhaps shrimp on Europa, or a habitable planet a few light years away would do the trick. If a president truly wanted to motivate an era of space exploration, they might call for finding evidence of life outside the Earth within 10 years, and fund that mission. If it worked, we would have to head into the cosmos so we could go say hello to whatever is out there.      

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