Obama’s Conservative Space Policy

[Note: KLo offered me some space at The Corner to rebut Jeffrey Anderson's post, but it hasn't gone up yet and I'm not sure when it will. But since it's just a blog post, and not a paid NRO article, I assume there's no problem with cross posting here.]

While I’m not a conservative, some of my best friends are, and I am sympathetic to that philosophy, so it pains me to see such an inadvertently unconservative post on space policy appear in The Corner from Jeffrey Anderson. I responded briefly at my blog, but I’m grateful to Kathryn to allow me some space there for a more proper rebuttal.

Short version, human spaceflight policy is one of the few things that Obama seems to be getting right, at least from a conservative standpoint.

Longer version:

The Bush Vision for Space Exploration, announced a year after the loss of the Columbia, in January 2004, was a good goal, and it got off to a decent start. Unfortunately, once he replaced Sean O’Keefe, the NASA administrator, with Mike Griffin in 2005, the wheels started to come off. As the Augustine Panel pointed out this past fall, there was little prospect with the current plans of getting back to the moon on the stipulated schedule, and in anything resembling an affordable way. Unfortunately, once they’d hired the rocket scientist as the new administrator, the White House had simply put it on autopilot, because they had understandably higher priorities. For those interested, I wrote a long essay on the history of the human spaceflight program last summer at The New Atlantis, right up to present day minus five months or so, that explains why NASA in its current form isn’t an institution that a conservative should support at all (in fact, per Jonah’s new formulation, it arguably even has fascist aspects to it), but many do as a result of the historical contingencies of Apollo. I know that it’s become popular of late for conservatives to laud JFK (who admittedly wouldn’t recognize, or probably even be allowed in today’s Democrat Party), but it’s important to understand what Apollo was, and wasn’t. It was a victory in the Cold War over the Soviets, but because we were at war, we waged it with a state socialist enterprise. What it was not was the first step of opening up the frontier to humanity, and was in fact a false start that has created a template for NASA and a groove in which we’ve been stuck for over four decades now, with many billions spent and little useful progress.

Part of the mindset that grew out of that era was that Space = NASA, and that “Progress in Space” = “Funding NASA” and that not funding NASA, or adequately funding NASA, or changing NASA’s goals, is a step backwards. But as I noted at Popular Mechanics yesterday on the 24th anniversary of the Challenger loss, that event had a good outcome, in that it allowed private industry to start to become more involved, a trend that continues (and that the Bush/Griffin administration did support, albeit with paltry funding, in the form of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to pick up slack in delivering cargo to the space station after Shuttle is retired this year or next). We have been in fact developing, though far too slowly, the sort of private-enterprise (and more intrinsically American than Soviet in nature) space program that might have evolved more naturally had we not been side tracked by Apollo in the sixties.

What the administration is doing is to finally end the model that the government will have a state socialist design bureau to build a monopoly transportation system for its own use, at tremendous cost, but politically supportable because of all the pork it provides to Alabama, Florida and Texas. It proposes to expand the COTS program to provision of crew changeout in addition to cargo delivery, encouraging competition, and providing a robust capability that won’t put us out of business when the government rocket fails (as has happened twice with the Shuttle in the past quarter century, for almost three years each time). Instead of a program projected to cost many tens of billions over the next decade for a NASA-owned-and-operated new rocket (Ares I) that will cost billions per flight of four astronauts, it is going to invest six billion dollars in developing private capability, with multiple competitors, and do it on a fixed-price, pay-for-performance basis, rather than the wasteful cost-plus model that inevitably results in overruns due to the perverse incentives.

At the same time, it is going to divert the funds being wasted by NASA on that redundant and unnecessary new rocket, and put at least some of them back into R&D for the kind of hardware necessary to actually get beyond low earth orbit (such as earth-departure stages, landers, propellant storage facilities, lunar resource utilization, etc.), R&D that had been starved by Mike Griffin in his desperation to find funds for his out-of-control Ares program. Yes, the administration has said that the moon is no longer an explicit, scheduled goal, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t go there, and in fact we’ll be in much better shape to do so with the new plans than we ever would have with the current ones, should we decide to do so in the future. And in addition to the moon, we’ll have the capability to visit, or divert asteroids, missions to the moons of Mars, and perhaps even Mars’ surface, because instead of wasting money on a new launch vehicle, we will have developed the affordable in-space infrastructure that allows us to do other things once private industry delivers us to orbit.

A couple other points. Contra Mr. Anderson (and with all due respect, Dr. Krauthammer), as another knowledgable space blogger (and space entrepreneur, part of the team that recently won the Lunar Landing Challenge) notes at my site, getting to and from orbit is not the most dangerous part of a space mission:

The vast majority of the danger for any beyond earth orbit mission is going to happen while you’re out there in the wilds. Even NASA agreed that an astronaut is about 30x more likely to die from something other than launch than they are to die during the ascent phase of the mission. If you only include the atmospheric reentry part in that number, it might drop to something only ~15-20x more likely to die from the actual BEO portion of a mission than from the ascent/descent phases. Even if you go with the really pessimistic ESAS LOC numbers for stock EELVs, you’re still talking about over 90% of the mission risks being from portions of the mission outside of earth orbit.

Note that Apollo XIII, the closest we came to losing Apollo astronauts in flight, occurred halfway to the moon. Had the tank explosion occurred on the way back, when there was no lunar module as backup, we would have lost that crew, no matter how much of an option Gene Kranz said failure wasn’t. From an overall mission safety perspective, spending tens of billions on a new launch system in the hope that it will be “safer” is a tragic misallocation of resources.

I would also note that it’s ironic that in defending a bloated government program, Mr. Anderson uses the same arguments as the left uses for theirs. Yes, NASA spending creates jobs. The issue is (as Bastiat famously asked about the window repairers) does it create wealth? And how many jobs in the private sector aren’t created because NASA is discouraging private activities by competing with them with government dollars?

If the choice is between having no space program at all, and the current one, perhaps the latter is preferable. But if the choice is spending the taxpayers’ money to create wealth and new industries while actually accomplishing things in space and perhaps finally opening it up for the rest of us, versus a wasteful jobs program for Marshall Spaceflight Center, I know which I’d prefer. The new administration plans will take us much more in that direction, and on the rare occasion that it gets something right, true conservatives should be applauding it, rather than recycling hoary tropes about “staying close to home,” and “going nowhere.” Sadly, it was the misbegotten policy of the previous administration that was doing that. At least in this area, it’s change I can believe in.

[Update a few minutes later]

Allahpundit:

Fiscal responsibility and privatization? What’s not to like?

As (Republican and (AFAIK) conservative) Jim Muncy has said, they seem to check their brains at the door in Washington when it comes to space policy.

[Update a few minutes later]

Sigh…

I just listened to Bret Baier’s panel on DVR, and all of them were clueless. Krauthammer was lamenting the lack of a JFK and a new Apollo, Kirsten Powers said she’d rather have NASA study climate change than walk on the moon (as though those are the only two options), and Steve Hayes said that he was worried about the national security implications and a new space race, as though anything that NASA is doing has anything to do with that, if it even exists, which it doesn’t, at least with regard to human spaceflight.

[Update early evening]

Another article on the subject. I found this interesting, in support of my thesis:

Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation here, said Obama’s proposed $6 billion investment would not only get astronauts back to launching on U.S. vehicles faster than Constellation, but would also “create more jobs per dollar” by leveraging private investment.

Alexander said Constellation has failed to live up to the Vision for Space Exploration he helped craft as a White House policy analyst under former President George W. Bush.

“I was a primary author of the Vision for Space Exploration, and I really wanted it to succeed. I am not happy that five years later it has to be retooled completely,” Alexander said. “But they chose the most expensive architecture and they had cost and technical issues with it. The cost overruns are astonishing.”

Ahhh, ignore it…just another view from a left winger.

One more point.

The Aldridge Commission (you know, the one that President Bush put together after his announcement six years ago for the new direction) had a number of recommendations that Mike Griffin’s NASA essentially tossed in the trash. Just going from memory:

1) Involve commercial enterprise
2) Involve internationals
3) Promote national security
4) Make it politically affordable and sustainable.

It’s quite obvious that (4) was completely ignored, because it has died, politically.

I would say that the Obama proposal is much more in keeping with those directives than the Program of Record.

Unfortunately, the Aldridge Commission also recommended a heavy lifter. We’ll see on Monday if they adhered to that as well…

[Another update]

As I just emailed to Instapundit, the only reason that Obama’s getting this policy right is because he probably doesn’t give a damn about it, and is relying on his underlings, who fortunately are more interested, and smarter.

[Saturday morning update]

When I call this a “conservative” space policy, I in no way mean to imply that this is the motivation. I know that Barack Obama is no conservative. I think that this is one of those many cases of the government accidentally doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. My theory is that Obama doesn’t care about space, which is a good thing, because he could really do serious damage to the program if he did. Fortunately, (unlike George Bush) he has some appointees in this case who have their heads screwed on straight, and he’s letting them do their own thing.

56 thoughts on “Obama’s Conservative Space Policy

  1. Paul Spudis

    Bolden: “people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the Moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of “firsts;”

    This is exactly the problem with the “new approach” — it lays bare the hollowness of the claim that there’s anything new here. NASA is still obsessed with “firsts” in space. PR stunts instead of building capabilities. Federal mega-money will now go to NewSpace companies rather than the old aerospace contractors.

    Meet the new paradigm, same as the old paradigm.

    So we’ve traded a clear strategic direction (the Vision) for no direction. And yes, I am aware that NASA was ignoring the “mission” of the VSE. Now they have nothing to ignore. Brilliant.

    I just can’t hardly wait for those “steady stream of ‘firsts'”!!

  2. Vladislaw

    “This is exactly the problem with the “new approach” — it lays bare the hollowness of the claim that there’s anything new here. NASA is still obsessed with “firsts” in space. PR stunts instead of building capabilities. Federal mega-money will now go to NewSpace companies rather than the old aerospace contractors.”

    the proof is ultimately in the pudding that NASA finally makes. Getting away from cost plus contracting for LEO with old aerospace and switching to fixed price contracting will represent a sea change of difference and having a gas station is space is also a game changer when it comes to ship design. whether this comes to pass is the real question.

  3. Kelly Starks

    >>> It has the goal to send humans beyond earth orbit in an affordable,
    >>> sustainable way, something that the previous plan did not.

    >> where have you seen anything suggesting nASA is directed
    >> toward anything remotely like that.”

    > NASA Administrator, C. Bolden

    > http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/420994main_2011_Budget_Administrator_Remarks.pdf

    > “Next, the president has laid out a dynamic plan for NASA to invest
    > in critical and transformative technologies. These will enable our
    > path beyond low Earth orbit through development ==

    And this says ” NASA has the goal to send humans beyond earth orbit in an affordable, sustainable way” how?

    Frankly i haven’t seen any listed transformative technologies on their list that arn’t already available, or could speed trip times to Mars that much. So we have it now, and were not going beyongLEO in a affordable way. So why would there doing more study change things?

  4. David Spain

    Rand,

    It has come to pass as you predicted years ago. Finally a chance to focus on infrastructure and supporting the private sector to get us boot-strapped into space the way NACA did for aviation.

    Ironic it was a Democrat that took the step. The re-tasking of NACA to NASA happened under Eisenhower’s watch, but the focusing of NASA as a quasi-socialist enterprise to get us to the moon first was a Kennedy goal. Thus what the Democrats wrought, so have they un-wrought.

    But perhaps that’s is mainly co-incidental. We *knew* that Constellation was not sustainable. If Obama hadn’t done so (and might not if times were more flush) it would have surely happened in the next administration.

    Dave

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