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The Wrong Kind Of Partisan

It was a little surprising, given his speech last week, that the president didn't mention space in the State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Then again, perhaps it wasn't. After all, John Kennedy, the last president to make successful a grand goal for space activities, didn't make his space speeches part of the State of the Union address--they were separate addresses.

I pointed out last week that there was little different in this plan from the plans of previous administrations. I was not quite correct.

From a political standpoint, there is a big difference, and a similarity with Kennedy's call for the nation to land men on the moon within a decade. This was an event that occurred years after his death, and, in fact, after his second term of office would have ended, had it been allowed to begin.

In that case, and the present one (and unlike the announcements of the Nixon and first Bush administrations) the president and the Congress were the same party.

As it was in the early sixties, with a young, charismatic Democrat president and a solidly Democrat Congress, it's hard to imagine that a Republican Congress, with a Republican president at the top of his game, will deny the call for a new space initiative. Assuming that President Bush is reelected this fall, we will be five years into the new program by the time he leaves office in 2009, and while it won't be impossible, it will be difficult to pull the program out of the new groove that the second President Bush has carved for it, which does mean, among other things the end of the shuttle program (a good thing).

All of which points out, once again, what's wrong with space policy.

I pointed out over a year ago, after the last election, that space is a non-partisan issue, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

When I say it's a non-partisan issue, I mean that the arguments about it rarely fall along traditional left/right or liberal/conservative lines. Ignoring the fact that such dichotomies are simplistic, the actual arguments are rarely that clean cut.

Modern liberals can object to the program for legitimate "liberal" reasons. It takes resources away from the poor and helpless, we shouldn't be pouring money into the vacuum of space when there are so many unmet needs on earth, we are exploiting yet another new environment when we haven't proved our ability to manage this one, blah blah blah.

Similarly, so-called conservatives have their own complaints. It's not a legitimate function of government, there's no obvious benefit, free enterprise will lead the way, etc. For an example of the latter, look to John Derbyshire's recent essay at National Review on line.

I don't agree with either position, and could put up strong arguments against them, but that's beside the point of this particular column, which is that the real problem is that space policy is politicized, but not because of any intrinsic merits or demerits of the proposal itself.

It's the fact that it's so seemingly apolitical that allows all policy participants to view it solely through the lense of who supports it, or doesn't. The party lines on this issue seem to be...non-existent. The political divide is about who proposes it, not any intrinsic features of the policy itself.

As an example, much of the discussion in the blogosphere has been filtered through the prism of various commenters' general opinion of the Bush administration. Many people seem to be opposing it purely because it's being proposed by the "smirking chimp." For example, see the comments section at this post by Kevin Drum. Or from Matthew Yglesias. Or Chad Orzel (scroll up for a couple more related posts on the same subject). The sense one gets from much of the commentary is that they'd favor the proposal if it were coming from a President Gore, or President Dean, but if Bush is proposing it, there's obviously something evil and cynical about it.

Orzel, in fact, is quite explicit about this:

I should note right up front that, like most people who have commented on this, I doubt that the Bush plan will turn out to be a Good Thing in the end. Not so much because I think it's inherently a bad idea as because it's being put forth by the Bush team.

There may be some people who are in favor of it for the same reason, but I suspect that they are far fewer. There are people who like George Bush, and support things because he supports them, but the ranks of those who mindlessly oppose things because of his support are almost certainly much larger.

It would be nice if the policy could be discussed on its merits or lack thereof, but I suspect that that's a forlorn hope in a Red/Blue America.

That's sad, because there are actually useful ideological divides on this issue that go beyond whether or not you believe bumper-sticker wisdom like "Bush lied, people died." It's possible to be both for the human expansion of space, and against additional funding for NASA. Similarly, it's possible to be utterly indifferent to such a goal, and still favor NASA budget increases, if your congressional district would benefit from same.

Until we can get past personalities, and into serious discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of space policy proposals, it's likely that we'll continue to be largely confined to the planet on which we evolved, regardless of how many high-toned speeches the president makes.

The basis of discussion should not be whether or not we want to send humans to other planets to stay, but what is the best policy to accomplish that, but I've seen little sign that the decision makers can break out of the stale binary thinking of the past. Merits remain irrelevant, and even after the most visionary space speech from an American president in years, politics continues to triumph.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 20, 2004 08:34 PM
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Agree with many of your points here; however:

From a political standpoint, there is a big difference, and a similarity with Kennedy's call for the nation to land men on the moon within a decade. This was an event that occurred years after his death, and, in fact, after his second term of office would have ended, had it been allowed to begin.

As I understand it the original plan was a landing in mid to late 1968. The result of that schedual was the Apollo 204 disaster. As it was, Apollo 8 would have orbited the moon in the last month of his presidency (although, of course, that was a highly contingent event itself)

I do think that this proposal is an attempt to to do some gardening with the abundant manure revealed by the CAIB report. There was no way they were going to get the shuttle recertified by 2010. I think everyone agrees on that, elephant or donkey.

The real question is how much CEV hardware gets produced by '08. Really, things have to start moving beyond animations by the end to this year - hard in an election year. And given that Bush detonated a big bomb under the budget with this SOTU (cut deficits in half my a*se!), it will be hard to avoid a living death by a thousand cuts a la shuttle and station.

Posted by Duncan Young at January 21, 2004 12:34 AM

A contributing factor is the sorry fact that many (most?) of the pundits and politicians staking out positions on space policy don't have a clue what they are talking about. Neither does their audience.

Widespread lack of knowledge and awareness of space allows these folks to build their arguments on stacks of bogus premises. It's very difficult to counteract, given our preference for information delivered in soundbites.

Posted by billg at January 21, 2004 04:01 AM

Mad Cow is a big concern and I don't recall hearing it mentioned either.

Bush set aside a large part of his day to go to NASA HQ to make an announcement. Cheney was on the West Coast at JPL at the same time working the same topic.

Space got a lot of attention and visibility. Both Pres and VP doing it simultaneously. Somewhat of a precedent.

Posted by Keith Cowing at January 26, 2004 09:39 PM


Posted by Rand Simberg at January 26, 2004 10:00 PM

Is it possible for 'the government' to just step out of the way and either support private interests or stop interfering? Or would that too be a fraught with politics?

I have in mind Alan Beal's issues with NASA that caused him to fold up Beal Aerospace .. after designing the B2 and a series of good test firings.

See Alan Beal's comments at

Posted by Brian at January 26, 2004 10:02 PM

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