The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Orion illustration
For human missions to the Moon to become reality, space advocates need to develop arguments to ensure long-term support for space exploration. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Long-term decisions, short-term politics

Establishing a spacefaring civilization will take a while. Taking the first steps towards creating a permanent human presence in space, as NASA is currently attempting to do, will take decades. Building the infrastructure—legal, political, financial, and technological—to support expansion into the solar system may take even longer. Many political analysts, however, argue that politicians in democratic systems are focused on the short term because their primary goal is to be reelected. That seems fundamentally inconsistent with sculpting sound space policy.

Politicians in democratic systems are focused on the short term because their primary goal is to be reelected. That seems fundamentally inconsistent with sculpting sound space policy.

Is it? In fact, probably not. Let’s take the United States as an example of a robust representative democracy. Has it successfully pursued programs over decades that required consistent political support? Certainly. Social Security dates from FDR, for example. The Cold War lasted over four decades. Studying such successful efforts may suggest how a major space effort extending over decades could be politically sustained.

The two examples above operate on different political theories. Social Security promises people tangible benefits. When a person retires, or becomes disabled, or when a spouse who was entitled to Social Security passes away, Social Security payments begin. Generations of Americans have planned their financial lives with such payments as an important factor. Perhaps too often, the only income after retirement has been Social Security checks. Americans, therefore, support the program because they see it as integral to their lives. The basic concept of social welfare with the federal government running programs Congress funds and oversees has been expanded since FDR. Similar programs in other nations serve the same function and are likely broadly supported, as well.

The Cold War offered no benefits beyond survival, although it sparked incredible technological development, especially in the United States and the West. President Truman established the basic US strategy in the Cold War, which was to contain Communist expansion until Communism as a system collapsed under its own weight. Long after Truman was gone, his basic strategy was proven sound. Over the forty years that process played out, presidents and Congresses of both parties—plus an array of other Western leaders—confronted a myriad of specific situations and employed various strategies and tactics to deal with them. The approach to the Cold War differed with presidents and situations, but the fundamental doctrine, the Truman Doctrine, held firm.

Space expansion, therefore, must be presented to voters as being good for society as a whole.

Establishing a basic space policy that will organize and guide efforts over decades might have more in common with Western conduct of the Cold War than with social programs like Social Security. For all the transformative power that will be developed by a determined move into space, quantifying that power would be difficult. Expressing that power through direct returns to individuals seems unreasonable. Alaska pays its citizens royalties from the sale of Alaskan oil, but a developing space-based economy will likely involve several industries, each with its own cost and profit structure, with perhaps none of them dependent on any one government. The direct payment approach to sustain political support probably won’t work.

Space expansion, therefore, must be presented to voters as being good for society as a whole. If the enemy in the Cold War was Communism, the alternatives to expanding the human economy beyond Earth are poverty, stagnation, and smaller, perhaps shorter lives for coming generations. Structuring the effort correctly will be important. Future presidents and Congresses will no doubt decide to put their own marks on the program, so the basic decision must be broad enough to allow for variations on its theme without endangering the overall effort. The current Bush plan, while sound as a plan, may lack the breadth and flexibility required. The Vision, in short, may lack a certain vision.

Or, the Bush plan up to now may have been pursued too narrowly. An international approach might, in the end, be more robust. A larger role for the private sector, leading to economic activity beyond Earth, may help stabilize the program even while broadening its support base. President Bush’s January 2004 speech laying out the plan contemplated both international and private sector involvement. For such a long-term program to succeed in a short-term-oriented democratic system, it must have the scope that allows personalities as varied as Kennedy and Nixon, Carter and Reagan, to embrace it—just as they all embraced the Truman Doctrine as the way to prevail in the Cold War. Will the Bush Vision be the Truman Doctrine of the early stage of settling the Solar System? The answer to that question might be clear in a matter of months.