In Search Of A Conservative Space Policy

With the quarter-century anniversary of the Challenger loss coming up next week, my thoughts on where we’ve been, and where we go from here. Even though I’m not really a conservative, I hope that the essay will make sense to them. Because unlike many, I at least speak the language, particularly when properly edited.

[Tuesday morning update]

I would note that there are two companion pieces to this, by Jeff Foust and Bob Zubrin.

30 thoughts on “In Search Of A Conservative Space Policy

  1. Al

    One piece that’s difficult to articulate is the spectrum of involvement.

    A prize for a glove meeting specs. Versus subsidizing someone who says they’re developing a glove. Versus cost plus contracting it out. Versus open-bid contracts. Versus developing the entire thing in house.

    An NTSB-like “we need XX vehicles to crash test with test dummies, but we don’t much care how you go about the protecting” is a very different regime from “Prove that your device is safe ab initio – statistically.”

    Flat-rate consumables ‘delivered’ to ISS – with a commitment to keep those lower-that-currently-possible rates. Airlock requirements. Approach markings.

  2. Trent Waddington

    Maybe it would be easier to just suggest the things that NASA shouldn’t do. For example “compete with industry” is a popular one. If there’s a company which builds spacesuits then NASA shouldn’t build spacesuits. When NASA decides that a contract is best way to go about doing what they want to do, competitive bids from industry should be requested. Whenever possible, NASA should encourage industry to maintain their expertise, develop products and offer those products for sale. They can tell if they’re successfully doing this by seeing whether or not they need to do a contract next time.

  3. Larry J

    I’ve frequently commented about NACA and was glad to see you mention it in the article. NACA never tried to run a fleet of airplanes except for some specialized test aircraft like their X-1. What NACA did do was establish and operate a collection of advanced wind tunnels. They used those wind tunnels for extensive aerodynamics studies, resulting in collections of airfoils (see “Theory of Wing Sections”), the NACA cowl for streamlining radial engines, and the Whitcomb Area Rule. They also supported industry by helping engineers test and refine designs without the need for companies to build their own wind tunnels.

    If NASA’s mission was brought in line with NACA’s, it would still do research to develop new technologies for industry like it did with the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite, weather satellites, etc. They could also continue research on advanced life support systems, propulsion technologies and the like while maintaining expensive test facilities to support industry.

    One question I don’t know the asnwer to is whether the downscoped NASA would continue to operate scientific satellites like the Hubble, ACE, and STEREO. IIRC, the Mars rovers and satellites are already operated by JPL. Perhaps scientific satellites would continue to be operated by NASA or transferred to other agencies.

  4. Coastal Ron

    Trent Waddington said:

    “Maybe it would be easier to just suggest the things that NASA shouldn’t do.”

    That might be a short-term fix, but the nature of humans is that they love to go around obstacles, and over time you would spend more time fixing problems than solving them.

    I think it is time to restate NASA’s role. It may not even take that much of a rewrite, since many parts of today’s NASA roles are not really part of their original charter. I definitely like the idea of NASA being more NACA-like, as I too think part of NASA’s goals should be to partner up and support American industry.

    Rand, I think you hit all the right points in your article, and I hope it gets noticed.

  5. Thomas Matula

    Rand,

    Good article and good summary of space policy, but unfortunately you skip over the key Constitutional required for making federal policy, a justification that is in line with the duties of the federal government as outlined under Section 8 of the Constitution.

    [[[For the sake of the present discussion — that is, with the particular aim of devising a space policy that American conservatives ought to embrace — let us simply posit that our purpose should be to advance the national interest and human flourishing, extending into space freedom, democracy, capitalism, and the institutions that promote them.]]]

    NASA’s creation, along with Project Apollo and the Space Shuttle did meet the Constitution test in that all could be and were justified as “provide for the common Defence” in the context of the Cold War. You might, just possibly, extend that to the ISS on the grounds that international cooperation in space reduces the chance of war, and tech transfer, but that is really stretching it to the breaking point, perhaps even beyond it. And searching for life on Mars is way beyond the breaking point in terms of the common Defense. Alias there are no Martian invaders to fight…

    Unfortunately no where in the Constitution is there any requirement for extending “freedom, democracy, capitalism, and the institutions that promote them” beyond the boundaries of the United States. Yes, it is a noble goal, and one President Kennedy used well when talking of Apollo, but that was before the OST eliminated claims of sovereign territory on Celestial Bodies. And he also used it in the context of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately the terrorists we are fighting show no interest in conquering space as the Soviets did.

    So that leaves the $20 billion dollar a year question, what is the Constitutional justification for space (either human or robotic) exploration?

    The only clause you have left is that it would “provide for the general welfare”. So if that is true how would you use that clause to justify it? Unfortunately until you provide a Constitution justification for human space flight then it is hard to argue that the federal government should spend 1 dollar on it funding it or even encouraging it.

    So just what is your Constitutional argument for NASA? Or any government funding of civilian space exploration? Answer that and you go a long way towards the formulation of a space policy.

  6. Larry J

    Interesting points, Thomas. Here are a few thoughts for possible discussion.

    Unfortunately no where in the Constitution is there any requirement for extending “freedom, democracy, capitalism, and the institutions that promote them” beyond the boundaries of the United States.

    However, this has been a long standing part of US foreign policy. Historical events like Lend-Lease, the Marshall Plan, perhaps the Monroe Doctrine, and military involvement during the Korean and Vietnam wars were essentially intended to promote freedom outside of the US. I quickly scanned the Constitution for the word “foreign” and saw nothing on the topic one way or the other. Perhaps I missed it.

    The Constitution is approximately 4400 words long. If we were to rigidly restrict the federal government to the limitations of the Constitution, it could probably be reduced to about 1% of its current size and cost. That’s a strong argument in favor of the idea but given decades of court rulings* and public expectations, I doubt we’d ever be able to go back to a purist approach to government. If a purist government is unlikely, then where do we draw the boundaries of what is a legitimate function of the federal government? I honestly don’t know.

    *Sad to say it, but effectively the Constitution means whatever 5 justices on the Supreme Court says it means.

  7. Thomas Matula

    Larry,

    Perhaps ISS could be justified as foreign policy, but how about the robotic programs? Not all have foreign partners.

  8. Rand Simberg Post author

    If funding exploration beyond the nation’s borders is unconstitutional, then the Exploration Expedition was as well, and that precedent was over a century and a half ago.

  9. Thomas Matula

    Rand,

    Interesting that you bring up Lewis and Clark. Some info on it for you to consider when using it as an example.

    http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jefferson-requests-funding-for-lewis-and-clark-expedition

    [[[Jefferson officially asked for $2,500 in funding from Congress, though some sources indicate the expedition ultimately cost closer to $50,000.]]]

    First, there was the little matter of a 2000 percent cost overrun…

    But also

    [[[Though he did not disclose his intentions to Congress, Jefferson planned to send Meriwether Lewis, his private secretary, on a reconnaissance mission that far exceeded the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase to determine how far west the U.S. might extend commerce in the North American fur trade and to assess the viability of future territorial expansion into the west. In misleading Congress, Jefferson had temporarily stifled his distaste for an abuse of executive privilege to achieve a strategic goal.]]]

    But in this sense it could also be justified as “common defense” since Russia, England and Spain all were claiming territory in the Pacific and the military threat these claims presented to the U.S. did need to be determined, which in this case would show it had the same justification as the creation of NASA and Apollo. That is why I noted the OST in my post, as it eliminated the basic reason used to justify Lewis and Clark and other similar expeditions.

  10. Al

    Defense against asteroids and ‘the unknown’ pass my personal ‘purity’ test. Promoting things that will allow defense in the future – even though they aren’t currently directly on target also meets my test. If there were absolutely no iron mines or oil wells in the US, it could well be a matter of national defense to start some, or start acquiring stockpiles. But given a choice, I’d prefer an environment that’s spurring the right sort of activity in the private sector over telling the Army Corps of Engineers to start digging.

  11. Larry J

    Larry,

    Perhaps ISS could be justified as foreign policy, but how about the robotic programs? Not all have foreign partners.

    Perhaps not all but a significant percentage of our space probes have sensors provided by other countries.

    This is admittedly a stretch, but Article 1 Section 8 includes the following sentence:

    To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

    Now, this is directly addressing patents and copyright law, but it does show that the founders were interested in promoting progress in science. Like I said, it’s a stretch. Other than that, I have not found anything in the Constitution that even remotely seems to address science at all much less a government space program unless you wanted to really stretch the point by creating a “space militia” or “space navy.”

    To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

    To provide and maintain a Navy;

  12. Titus Quinn

    Promoting things that will allow defense in the future – even though they aren’t currently directly on target also meets my test.

    Naval superiority -> Air superiority -> Space superiority

  13. Gene DiGennaro

    Trent,
    NASA already does precisely what you’re saying and has done so for decades. For example, spacesuit manufacturing is done by the David Clark Co., Hamilton Sundstrand, and ILC Dover. All three of these (or their legacy predecessors) companies placed bids on space suits for the Apollo program. ILC Dover was chosen to make the lunar suits. When NASA announced a need for the space shuttle EMU suit, the three contracotrs each placed a bid. Hamilton Sundstrand partnered with ILC Dover won this time. The David Clark Co. was given the contract to develop NASA’s LES ( the orange suit) spacesuit after the Challenger accident.

  14. Thomas Matula

    Titus Q,

    [[[Naval superiority -> Air superiority -> Space superiority]]]

    But now you are discussing the justification for the military spending money on space. There is no question that is justified under the Constitution. The question is what would the justification be for civilian space? Especially if you have a military space program.

  15. Thomas Matula

    Al,

    Linking NASA to planetary defense would indeed bring it under the “common Defence” clause. And one could argue in favor of a civilian space agency being given the mission to avoid the foreign policy issues (fear of using NEOs as weapons) that would be involved if the military was given the mission. And a civilian agency would make a multinational approach easier.

    Developing sources of raw materials for military needs might also fit under ‘common Defence”. More so if you could link it to planetary defense.

    But historically NASA’s Advisory Committee has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to listing NEOs as a funding priority – only relenting when Congress issues direct orders to do so. And we all know how well the argument for NASA to focus on using space resources, starting with the Moon and NEOs has gone over, especially when it might compete with sending rovers to look for bacteria on Mars…

    But planetary defense might indeed be the Constitution justification needed to build a Conservative Space Policy on, and would definitely benefit space settlement and the development of a space economy by private parties.

    The question is what would such a policy look like? And what would a NASA reorganized around planetary defense look like?

  16. Larry J

    The military space program is concerned with defense, so its satellites concentrate on military applications: communications (DSCS-III, WGS, FleetSatCom, UFO, Milstar, AEHF), weather (DMSP), precision navigation & timing (GPS), missile launch detection (DPS & SPIRS), and intelligence (don’t ask). This isn’t space exploration but space exploitation. GPS happens to have a lot of civilian applications and there is some commonality with the weather and communications areas. Once in a while, the military launches a R&D satellite (e.g. C/NOFS) to test new technology or address a specific need.

    Space exploration using scientific satellites, space probes, and landers are outside the military’s area of interest, as is manned spaceflight for the most part.

  17. ken anthony

    If we were to rigidly restrict the federal government to the limitations of the Constitution, it could probably be reduced to about 1% of its current size and cost.

    Yahoo! Yeehah! Ride them dogies…

    Oh, you weren’t suggesting that as a solution? My bad.

    Regarding Navy -> Air -> Space

    World War 2 gave us the drive and the time to develop from an Army Air Corp. to an Air Force. The next war is likely to be a fast one, giving us no development time. Some of that development is happening now, but is not likely to go very far.

    We are on the slow track in space. To get on the fast track we need lots of people living in space which is going to be a boot strap operation for some time. Seeing that for the first time in my life some companies exist that have visionaries running them and are capable of taking the next steps gives me hope.

  18. Thomas Matula

    Larry J,

    [[[Space exploration using scientific satellites, space probes, and landers are outside the military’s area of interest, as is manned spaceflight for the most part.]]]

    Which would be expected since they would not be providing for the “common defence”, at least under NASA’s current goals.

  19. Cecil Trotter

    Unfortunately no where in the Constitution is there any requirement for extending “freedom, democracy, capitalism, and the institutions that promote them” beyond the boundaries of the United States.

    It could be argued, rather convincingly I believe, that doing the above contributes to the goal to “provide for the common Defence”.

  20. Bob-1

    Some of you are stretching the conservative/right-wing preference for the enumerated powers interpretation of Article 1, Section 8 to the breaking point.

    But lets figure out what we all can agree to:
    If the USA encounters hostile non-humans in the course of space exploration, we all accept it will be constitutional to defend our country against them. And if the USA encounters hostile mutants, a defense will also be constitutional, however implausible that scenario might seem…

    …and so if a majority of democratically elected members of Congress want to reform health care in this country to defend the American public against pathogens (hostile non-humans, by definition), and cancer (mutant human cells!), I’m sure you’ll agree this is constitutional too, regardless of whether the health care reform is “ObamaCare” or a more vigorous defense, such as a single-payer universal health care system.

  21. Rand Simberg Post author

    Interesting that you bring up Lewis and Clark. Some info on it for you to consider when using it as an example.

    Why would I consider info on Lewis and Clark when I said nothing about Lewis and Clark, and didn’t used it as an example?

  22. Thomas Matula

    Rand,

    Then exactly what [[[Exploration Expedition]]] you were referring to?

    The Wilkes Expedition perhaps? That was a mapping mission for the U.S. Navy, clearly “common Defence” for the protection of U.S. maritime interests which were a major driver of the economy in the first half of the 19th Century. Some of the maps made were used by the U.S. Navy as recently as World War II. So unlike the Lewis and Clarke Expedition, which was controversial at the time it was funded, there was no argument that Wilkes Expedition fell within Congress powers under the Constitution.

  23. Thomas Matula

    Cecil,

    That was one of the arguments used during the Cold War for Apollo. And also used for U.S. intervention in many nations during that period. But I am not sure it would be accepted today.

  24. Thomas Matula

    Rand,

    As a side note, the proper name for the Wilkes Expedition was the “United States Exploring Expedition” so I am still not sure what the Exploration Expedition is that you are referring to…

  25. ken anthony

    …and so if a majority…I’m sure you’ll agree this is constitutional too

    Wrong again Bob. While the meaning of things is subject to debate, there are some basic principles. Yes, a government entity could be involved in disease control. No, forcing free citizens to be a part of a mandatory system is not constitutional… it’s slavery, which we’ve all pretty much agreed is a law too far.

  26. Edward Wright

    Linking NASA to planetary defense would indeed bring it under the “common Defence” clause.

    It would, indeed, Tom — but planetary defense would require NASA to go beyond the Moon, which you consider to be politically incorrect.

    Have you suddenly changed your mind?

    Developing sources of raw materials for military needs might also fit under ‘common Defence”.

    Spoken look a good Stalinist. The military needs oil, so we should nationalize the oil industries? The military needs food, so we should nationalize the agriculture and restaurant industries?

    But historically NASA’s Advisory Committee has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to listing NEOs as a funding priority – only relenting when Congress issues direct orders to do so.

    Tom, the NASA Advisory Council (not “Committee”) doesn’t set funding or determine NASA priorities. It merely offers advice. (Hence the name.) Which NASA can choose to ignore. So, I’m not really sure what point you’re trying to make here.

    I will point out, however, that the current NASA Administrator believes planetary defense is a priority. I haven’t seen any “kicking and screaming” about this from NASA lately (although I have seen plenty from you).

    In any case, if you want to continue telling us how well you understand the political process and how dumb everyone else is, you might want to study up on things like what the NASA Advisory Council does and how it’s spelled. :-)

    And we all know how well the argument for NASA to focus on using space resources, starting with the Moon and NEOs has gone over, especially when it might compete with sending rovers to look for bacteria on Mars…

    Tom, you’ve said repeatedly that don’t want NASA to “use” (mine) space resources, you want a new international government bureaucracy to do that. So, what exactly are you complaining about?

    Personally, I’m fine with having NASA concentrate on scientific research (like looking for bacteria on Mars) and leaving industrial activities like transportation and mining to the private sector. That’s the way we do it on Earth. The USGS and NOAA do exploration and research, but they don’t engage in shipping or mining. (And they don’t have a monopoly on exploration or research, either.) It seems to me that a conservative space policy ought to be guided by past precedents like terrestrial and oceanic exploration, rather than trying to invent entirely new economic system for space.

    But planetary defense might indeed be the Constitution justification needed to build a Conservative Space Policy on, and would definitely benefit space settlement and the development of a space economy by private parties.

    I agree with that, Tom. The question is, do you agree — or is this just another one of the things you post here and then deny 72 hours later?

    The question is what would such a policy look like? And what would a NASA reorganized around planetary defense look like?

    Initially, I think, it would look a lot like the Flexible Path. There are a lot of ideas about asteroid deflection, and heated arguments about which is the best method, but the truth is — no one knows. Our knowledge of the asteroids is based on a very small number of missions to a tiny handful of asteroids that may not be representative of the general population (much less the population of interest for planetary defense).

    So, I think the first phase of planetary defense would be Exploration and Reconnaissance — a large number of low-cost unmanned probes to visit a much larger, statistically significant sample of the asteroid population, along with human missions to study selected bodies in more detail.

    The second phase would be Experimentation, where expeditions go beyond studying the asteroids and attempt to influence them in some way and study the results.

    Phase three would be Operations, with the actual deployment of operational defenses.

    Obviously, there could be some overlap between these phases. Exploration and Experimentation might continue even after a first-generation defense becomes operational.

    Phase 2 is probably where human missions are most important. Once we’ve characterized the asteroids and developed operational means of dealing with them, it is possible (perhaps likely) that the operational systems can be fully automated.

    This would require NASA to become much more of an operational agency, concentrating on flying missions, rather than a development agency building launch vehicles and capsules. That would mean much greater reliance on the private sector. Much like NOAA or the Coast Guard — they don’t operate the shipyards that build their cutters and research vessels, much less operate the tugs that get them into and out of the harbor. (Yes, I know that in most cases, such ships are capable of getting into and out of the harbor on their own power — this analogy is not perfect.)

  27. Edward Wright

    Space exploration using scientific satellites, space probes, and landers are outside the military’s area of interest, as is manned spaceflight for the most part.

    Just because you keep saying that doesn’t make it true, Larry. The military spent decades trying to develop its own manned spaceflight program. The fact that Congress kept beating them down doesn’t mean there was no interest. And even though it’s been beaten out of some parts of the military, it still keeps cropping up in programs like SUSTAIN.

    If you said “outside of Space Command’s area of interest,” you might well be correct, but Space Command is not the entire military.

  28. Ralph Buttigieg

    G’day,

    Look, the real issue is the huge trillion dollar deficit. Sooner rather then latter the axe is going to fall on everything. If NASA survives at all, a 50% budget cut would not be out of the question.

    The real question to be asked is ” What if any, is the role of government in Space?” The answer is obvious, the same as on Earth, ie law & order, defense, providing public goods etc. However the main organisation doing that today is not NASA but DOD through the USAF Space Command. As far as anyone is telling, there are no weapons systems in Space but the Space Command provides space services to the war fighter which often have a much wider civilian benefits, ie GPS, weather satellites SSA etc. Its dubious if these services should really be provided by the military.

    Heres a proposal for a Space policy for small government types:

    1) Chop NASA’s budget in half. Disband the astronaut corps, dump ISS , forget about HLLV, Moon bases etc. That still leaves a budget of about $9B considerably more then ESA’s. Plenty of money for aerospace R&D and space science which is what they should concentrate on. With that sized budget NASA can still afford a regular payload specialist to Bigelow’s station.

    2) Detach The Space command from the USAF and convert it into the US Space Guard under a civilian department. It would be the main agency for the governments non-warfighting , practical, Space services duties. Protection from Space disasters such as solar storms and impact events would be one of its missions.

    To carry out its missions it would acquire a human BEO capability. The USA had that with Apollo 8 decades ago. The capability should be able to be provided commercially today at reasonable cost.

    The BEO missions the Space Guard would undertake would include:

    Training expeditions to the Moon.

    Establishment of large human tended observatories at the Lagrange points to permanently monitor the sun and solar system for natural threats.

    Exploratory expeditions to NEAs to work out how to shove them out of the way.

    ta

    Ralph

Comments are closed.