An Overall Perspective On The Reagan Space Legacy

A couple weeks ago I published a eulogy to Ronald Reagan at National Review on line, with respect to his legacy for space. It wasn’t the original piece I submitted–the original submission was longer and more comprehensive in terms of his overall space policy.

The piece that they published was better, partly because it was tighter and more succinct, and partly because, in the interests of the old saying of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, it was uncritical of his failures in space policy.

Now that he’s been interred, and it’s time to reflect on his presidency in its entirety, I’m republishing the original piece here. It will follow when you click on the “read the rest” link (unless you’re coming directly to the permalinked post, in which case it follows after the next couple paragraphs).

I’m prompted to do this for two reasons. First, because it has some perspective on the Reagan space policy that is relevant today, but also because Dwayne Day had a piece at The Space Review today that I think is too kind to Bill Clinton in that regard (and by the way, there are a lot of interesting pieces at that site today, so don’t restrict yourself to that one).

Thus, I’m providing what I hope is a relatively objective perspective of Reagan’s space policy, which was by no means completely laudatory, in anticipation of a similar one on Mr. Clinton’s, which was yet another decade-long setback, and one that the current administration is not addressing in many important ways.

One of the most memorable of Ronald Reagan’s many notable speeches was the comfort he offered the nation on the evening of January 28, 1986. That was the day that the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost with its crew of seven, in front of a national audience including millions of schoolchildren watching the first teacher in space on her way to orbit. When most people are asked to associate his presidency with space, that’s probably the most immediate, visceral connection that jumps to mind.

But what was his legacy for current space activities? Are we more, or less advanced into the high frontier today than otherwise because he was president then?

Back in the early eighties, there were two recognized aspects to federal space policy: military, and civil. In at least the first one, the military one, the Strategic Defense Initiative (almost immediately dubbed “Star Wars” by its detractors), announced on March 23rd, 1983, was, in the most essential sense, a resounding success. This was despite the fact that it never became operational (though it may finally be on the verge of doing so in the next few years). To paraphrase Lady Thatcher, he won the Cold War without shooting down a single missile, or even launching a system capable of doing so. By many accounts (including Soviet accounts), it was a key element in persuading the Soviets that they couldn’t keep up with us in technology or military spending, ultimately contributing to their collapse.

On the other hand, Reagan’s civil space legacy is at best mixed. Current conventional wisdom among most historians would probably be that he will be most remembered for initiating the space station program, which he announced in his State of the Union address on January 25th, 1984 (almost exactly two years before the loss of the Challenger). While his speech announcing the new NASA initiative was expansive and visionary, it was born of a much more mundane purpose. A year and a half earlier, on the Fourth of July, 1982, the president had gone out to Edwards Air Force Base and (prematurely, as it later turned out in the wake of the Challenger investigation) declared the Shuttle “operational” after only four flights. This was not his error, of course–he couldn’t be expected to know (and perhaps no one could at that time)–it was done on the advice of people like Jim Beggs, then NASA administrator.

With this announcement, it was becoming clear that, just as the Shuttle program was started in 1973 largely to give NASA’s manned spaceflight centers and contractors something to do after Apollo, as the Shuttle development wound down in the early eighties they would have to be transitioned into something else. That something else was a space station, the so-called “next logical step” that was part of the grand goals ever since the fifties when Wernher von Braun outlined plans for solar system exploration in Colliers and in conjunction with Disney. In fact, one of the stated justifications for the Shuttle was to build and sustain such a thing, so both programs tended to mutually reinforce each other.

So, given this logic and no doubt at least to some degree mindful of jobs at home, at the aerospace contractors in southern California (just as Nixon was when he authorized the Shuttle), he approved the program. It should be noted that, to whatever degree one thinks that the space station was a step forward for our space aspirations, it hung in the balance in the 1984 election. Walter Mondale, his election opponent that year, was a vociferous opponent of the NASA manned space program. He had tried to kill the Shuttle first in the early 1970s as a Senator, and later as President Carter’s vice president in the late 1970s, but only managed to get the Carter administration to reduce the fleet size from seven to five (a decision that saved little money at the time, but haunts us now, as we have only three left). Had he won that November, the station, still in its early planning stages, surely would have died. For better or worse, Reagan’s victory kept it alive, ironically leading to many of the problems that NASA has today.

However, in the future, as history plays out off planet, the late president will in fact eventually be remembered as a visionary pioneer in space, but not for any decisions he made with respect to new NASA programs. Rather, it will be for much less publicized but more far-ranging ones. There is a third aspect to space policy beyond military and civil–there is a commercial sector as well.

In less than two weeks, a small manned rocket-powered craft will pierce the top of the atmosphere in the southern California desert, going into space with a newly minted license to do so from the Federal Aviation Administration. That license is a result of policy decisions that stretch back over two decades, to President Reagan’s first term of office.

The early eighties were the formative years of the nascent commercial launch industry. It’s difficult to remember now, but everything launched into space up until that time, including commercial communications satellites, had been lifted on a government launch vehicle, by either NASA or the Air Force.

A few people saw the potential demand for private launch, and established companies to provide such services, but they ran into huge institutional roadblocks. It wasn’t obvious how to go about performing a legal private launch, and they had to coordinate with a myriad of government entities–launch ranges, the FCC for frequency permits, the FAA for air clearances, the EPA for environmental issues, the State Department for international treaty obligations, etc. This created a great deal of regulatory uncertainty, which in turn made it difficult to raise funds.

Some of these companies approached the administration with a request for regulatory relief, which was proposed as setting up a “one-stop shop” that they could deal with for permission to launch. This agency would in turn coordinate all the others.

When this issue was raised to the president, it piqued his interest. Having lived through the same early history of the space program as the rest of us, which consisted only of government agencies going into space, he had never considered the possibility of private individuals doing so, but it resonated strongly with his basic philosophy of freedom and individualism, so he decided to make it happen. He had a cabinet meeting in which the main issue under discussion was not whether or not to do it, but how and where, with the two candidates being the Department of Commerce, under Malcolm Baldrige, and the Department of Transportation, under Elizabeth (now Senator) Dole. Per his natural predilections, the decision was made on the basis of which department would be the most nurturing of the new industry and provide the fewest hindrances.

Apparently Secretary Dole was the most persuasive in that regard, because in 1983 the president signed an executive order establishing an Office of Commercial Space Transportation in the Department of Transportation, which would issue launch licenses. In 1984, Congress codified this into law in the Commercial Space Launch Act, and Reagan was pleased to sign it.

This was a key development in the fledgling industry, but it still had the burden of having to compete with government-subsidized launch systems, particularly the Shuttle. Part of the cost justification for the Shuttle was that it would attain its high flight rate (necessary to achieve the advertised low costs) by flying all of the nation’s payloads, including commercial payloads. Hughes (now Boeing Satellite Systems) had even designed a communications satellite specifically for launch in the Shuttle.

While the 1986 Challenger loss was a tragedy for the nation, and for those who had invested their dreams in a government space program, it turned out to be a boon for the commercial launch industry. Eight months after it occurred, recognizing that the policy had been flawed from the beginning, the Reagan administration issued another executive order ending the use of the Shuttle for commercial payloads, unless they could only be launched on the Shuttle.

One might argue, of course, that a President Mondale would have solved this latter problem by simply killing the Shuttle program (along with the space station) a year and a half earlier, in 1985, but while he may have desired to do so, it’s unlikely that he would have persuaded powerful members of his own party on the Hill whose districts benefited from it–it was probably too late at that point. In any event, it’s hard to imagine him having the vision to even imagine a private space program, let alone choosing a department to manage it on the basis of which would most and soonest enable it.

Regardless, the pieces were finally in place for a commercial launch industry–they had an established regulatory process in place by which private launches could occur, and the market had opened up with the end of the subsidized Shuttle rides. As a result, today we have a number of commercial launchers of various sizes and prices, carrying a variety of communications, remote sensing, and other satellites. Beyond that, we are now on the verge of an era of commercial manned spaceflight, in which no one need apply to space bureaucracy for a ride–they’ll soon be able to simply buy a ticket.

That will be a future in which we finally have a space program with the traditional American values of free enterprise and open frontiers to all, rather than a cold-war one of centralized government bureaucracy. Moreover, it will be a future that had its roots in decisions made by a far-seeing cowboy in the White House two decades ago.

Ad astra, Mr. President.