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Space And The Next President

Jim Muncy leading a forum on presidential space politics, consisting of himself, Alan Ladwig, Lori Garver and Courtney Stadd. It's a bi-partisan panel, since Alan and Lori are Democrats, and Jim and Courtney are Republicans.

Jim: We are already seven months into the longest, hardest-fought and expensive presidential campaign in history. People in this room can have more effect on our prospects for space than anyone in the Oval Office. We tend to look to presidents to set the direction and lead, but it doesn't have to be just about what they do. Yes, we should wish that we can have an impact on what they do on space, and in a perfect world, we'd have a debate in 2008 debating the merits, successes and failures of the G W Bush administration, and missed opportunities, and new opportunities and what their agenda would be. This is about as likely as Kurds, Shia and Sunnis in Iraq singing Kumbaya with Harry Reid.

What is the art of the possible? What could she say or he do to take up the good things that were accomplished over the past eight years and move them forward, or identify things that should be fixed? He asks Courtney for a report card on Bush space policy.

Courtney: Mixed record at best. Columbia afforded an opportunity to make some major changes, VSE addressed anxiety about presidential space leadership. We can argue about destinations, but we can be happy that there is one for now. New administration will inherit transportation problems. Current NASA leadership has put in high-quality people that would allow next administration to make some advances. Now he's in the private sector, thinks that Bigelow is a dream come true, and told them that he's willing to help as long as they don't make NASA a key part of the business plan.

Lori: Agrees with Courtney about Columbia environment setting new policy to move beyond LEO, and a highlight of the past six years. COTS has increased commercial space transportation pool by order of magnitude over Alt Access. But need more participants (two not enough). Also have issue of no broad base of support for the program. Overall grade: C-

Alan: Space science uber alles is a symptom of the fact that the space science people have always had a long-term vision and agenda that didn't need a president to support them, but the human space flight community has been less visionary, and was waiting for the president to stand up. The president stood up, but hasn't said much since. Cuts to aeronautics are almost criminal. COTS is a good new model for how to get things done. Good things have happened over the past eight years, but it's not much because of what the government has done. Agrees with Lori's C- grade.

Jim: Going to be generous and give them an Incomplete. In human spaceflight and space operations, NASA was not doing a very good job early in the decade, and could have embraced alternatives to space station access more aggressively, but thankfully the Russians bailed us out. Gerstenmaier doing a good job of getting station built and Shuttle retired. Gives them a B or an A- on that. On the science side, they initially threw a lot of money at science because they didn't know what they wanted to do, and got people too excited, so that later "cuts" appeared much worse than they really were, because they were really small increases. Gives the administration (not the president) a D grade. The architecture, by Mike Griffin's own definition, will have to be implemented by a future administration, and Griffin has as much as said that the decision to actually go to the moon will have to be determined by a future congress. Vision itself A- (could have been more commercially oriented), but implementation has been flawed, and thinks it unfortunate that whether or not we're really going back to the moon remains uncertain, and poorly argued. Needs a more forthright statement that we are going back to the moon, and need more embrace of commercialization, and there is too much focus on the gap. The only gap will be of American-government-flagged spaceships going into space.

Lori: Wants to defend Mike Griffin. Has said great things in the Washington Post and other places about the importance of space and colonization, and it's unlikely we'll ever get a stronger advocate in that regard. Jim agrees on that score.

Courtney: Officially not aligned with either party. He sees a fundamental problem with the country, and sees a fundamental dysfunction of organization of the government, regardless of party. We have a 1950's style government in the twenty-first century. Have good vigorous people on the Hill, but no one with the necessary science and technology knowledge. Lots of policy wonks and political science types, but not people who understand the accelerating technologies. People will look back in a few decades and wonder how people we were condescending to recently are beating us. His fear as an American citizen is the fact that NASA is a symptom of a much larger problem with how the government is organized. We are sitting in "six and a half square miles, surrounded by reality." Space policy is a parlor game populated by a very small group, and he hopes that next president will broaden that base.

Alan: Hopes that we can get people to think about space in a broader context than NASA (group NASA and DOD together, rather than just with NSF).

Courtney: NASA was stovepiped in the Bush administration.

Lori: Under the Kerry campaign, space was grouped under science and technology, and she would have preferred it as part of national competitiveness.

Jim: Space has wide impact: environment, energy, etc. Space fits in everything, and we want a space person on all the transition teams.

Alan: Nothing magic about how teams are set up, but we might be able to get some people in. Unfortunately, support for the campaign is a more important criterion for choice of who is in transition than subject knowledge.

Courtney: Signal-noise ratio of campaign very high, and hard to penetrate it with policy analysis, particularly if it doesn't seem to help politically. Campaigns are crisis driven, and it's hard for space geeks to get much attention. We have an infrastructure crisis, and we're not grappling with it. If we can get space into that conversation, we might be able to get some traction with it, but it takes a long time to get national consensus. We have responsibility to grab the political apparatus and politicians by the lapels, and tell them that we have a serious problem.

Jim: If you're running the transition team for the new president, what are the top three things related to space?

Alan: More support for longer-range R&D (quotes Goldin that NASA should be doing things that the private sector won't do). Need better collaboration between NASA and DOD. Better, but still too much stovepiping going on. Third, NASA has to be more commercially oriented. If they can't outsource parabolic flight, why should COTS contestants think they'll do it with ISS delivery?

[Simberg note: I was making this latter argument over ten years ago, when there was this fantasy, on which I did some consulting to USA, about privatizing the Shuttle. I had been fighting to get NASA to buy parabolic services from my own company, and noted how fiercely they defended their turf. My recollection of a conversation that I had with him at the Space Foundation meeting in Colorado Springs at the time, when Alan was at NASA, is that he was defending them, claiming that they had to have control over the training aircraft for the astronaut candidates. So I find it amusing that, having gone to Zero-G after leaving NASA, we're now on the same page. The only difference, of course, is that they have FAA certification, but that shouldn't have been necessary to perform services for NASA anyway. Another example of how one can become sensible once one is out of range of the mind-control stupidity-inducing beams that seem to permeate the agency facilities.]

Courtney: Wants a suspension of all commissions for a period of time. Would tell the new president that we have real problems, and are going out of business as a bureaucracy and a country. Overdue for reinventing NASA and government overall. Will be six to nine months before new administration recognizes NASA and picks a new administrator, because it's too low a priority. Then there will be a scramble to get someone in. Would hope and pray that the next group running a transition will set it up up front. Whether true or not, there's a perception that this administration is bad on science, and this should and could be a high priority for any next administration.

Jim: Describing an article he wrote fifteen years ago called "Never trust a space agency over thirty." Next year it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the agency. We're not very good in this country at reinventing our institutions. Only thing that tends to work is to shrink them (often randomly). Doesn't know if that's possible.

Alan: There's a precedent when NACA became NASA. Maybe because the mission has changed, it shouldn't be contained all in one agency.

Lori: They may create a department of the environment, pull Goddard out. Jim suggests moving it to NOAA. Refers to the next president as she to the fright and amusement of the audience.

Alan: We should plan to hammer out some policy suggestions for the next administration at the next year's conference, but also get other sectors involved, such as the environmentalists, and military space plane people.

In response to a question as to whether or not Shuttle should be extended to close the "gap," Jim says "Hell, no." Points out that entitlement programs are going to be increasing pressure on the budget in the future. Courtney mentions that one day of Iraq is a useful science program. Don't ever underestimate the tremendous inertia that these programs have.

[Monday morning update]

Jeff Foust has a report on this session, and presidential space politics in general, over at this morning's issue of The Space Review.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 20, 2007 02:38 PM
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Wants to defend Mike Griffin. Has said great things
yeah, all his talk is mostly great. the actions reflect nothing what he says, however.

Posted by kert at July 21, 2007 12:49 AM

Interesting set of trial balloons there from Lori & Co. You can tell that she is angling for the administrator's seat in a dem administration. You can tell that stuff like this is floating around in certain circles.

I would be willing to bet a fair amount of change that Fred Thompson is going to be the Repub nominee, so it will be important what he thinks about things. The only thing that he has definitively said is that the DoD budget was cut too much in the 90's and that a complete restructuring of that organization is necessary. That is a good thing as it could lead to the same for NASA.

Too many on the D side have written off the repubs in 2008 but they are making huge mistakes every day and just FYI, it is not because of Iraq that congresses approval ratings are just half of what George Bush's numbers are.

It would be extremely interesting if we had an all Tennessee contest in 2008 between Fred and Al.

Posted by Dennis Wingo at July 22, 2007 04:12 PM

I think Dennis is right that Fred Thompson has the best chance to be the GOP nominee and that the Dems do not have a lock on the Presidency. A recent poll showed that 52 percent of the electorate would not vote for Hillary Clinton, the odds on favorite for the Democratic nomination, under any circumstances. So I also agree that whatever Thompson thinks about space matters is a big deal.

But I don't think Gore is going to jump in.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at July 22, 2007 04:25 PM

I can tell you with 100% certainty that Gore wont jump in as a Democrat, he's as sick of them as the Republicans are. If he were to run as an independent, numerous 'well capitalized' individuals in the Silicon Valley and Seattle area have suggested that he would have 'zero trouble' finding the campaign funding required. He'll have even less trouble with a certain former republican as a running mate.

After the crap that he went through last time (most related to his association with the sleaze that is Clinton) I have serious doubt that he'll do it.

Posted by Adrasteia at July 23, 2007 03:57 AM

regarding commercial space, and COTS outsourcing... give it a hundred years or so. Before you balk at the time think on this. Commercial is a BUSINESS. They have to show profit next quarter, not in 10 years or more. This makes them handy to hurl a satellite, as long as it's on somebody elses dime. On their own dime? Yeah, NO. For human space flight [the thing that actually gets people fired up] you need a governemnt institution. Staff it with the right people, and then FUND IT. Instead of constantly scrapping projects and making the target move all the time.

In a hundred years, perhaps we will be3 mining the belt. THAT is when commercial space takes off. Because there will be money to be made. THEN lots of new designs and R&D will happen because there is a reason for it to happen. In order to make that work, you have to start today.

Posted by D at July 23, 2007 06:41 AM

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