The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 


 
Kerry at KSC
Given Kerry’s lukewarm support for space exploration, but larger concerns about President Bush’s policies, what’s a Democratic space activist to do? (credit: NASA/KSC)

November’s moral dilemma

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
Say rather that he’s apolitical.
“Once the rockets are up, who cares were they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher Von Braun.

— Tom Lehrer, “Wernher Von Braun”

Jeff Foust’s recent account of a space policy debate in Washington, and Taylor Dinerman’s pro-Bush piece last week, have revived a question for me. Just what price are those of us who want a vigorous return to space exploration willing to pay?

On space, the differences in the candidates’ directions are now clear. The Bush plan, around which NASA is already reorganizing, would focus the agency’s efforts on human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit and back to the Moon. As declared in a white paper this week, Kerry’s approach would be to preserve NASA’s traditional “balanced” approach to a diverse research agenda that would include restoring its now-threatened aeronautics budget. The paper also labels the Bush plan an un-funded “political stunt.” There’s no question that it is much harder for space supporters like me to be excited about the latter, rather diffuse approach, when we have pined for decades for a return to human space exploration.

Where in the order of priorities does space fall? What nearer-term sacrifices would we be willing to make in order to promote the proposed government space agenda?

Yet, for me and about half of our politically-polarized nation, there is no more important agenda than seeing Kerry/Edwards replace Bush/Cheney. Our alarm at another Bush term stems from such issues as the move from a multi-trillion-dollar surplus to a multi-trillion-dollar deficit, two costly tax breaks that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy, and the simultaneous budget-breaking foray into Iraq that has stretched our military thin and diverted us from other dangers.

My point here isn’t the validity of my worldview, but rather that given that view, where in the order of priorities does space fall? What nearer-term sacrifices would we be willing to make in order to promote the proposed government space agenda?

If you are a space supporter, and are solidly with Bush, there is little dilemma: he has an exciting space plan, and is probably likely to support it more in a second and final term. If you support Kerry, you must consider that this opportunity will likely be lost, but that further rash moves in another round of Bush/Cheney will have been avoided.

Von Braun and the ’04 election

It is thus that Wernher Von Braun has helped me make a confident choice for November. I would not suggest that George W. Bush merits comparison to Hitler. However, Wernher Von Braun and his team faced an analogous, if much greater, moral dilemma in developing rocket technology for the Nazis. The V-2 missile work at Peenemunde hastened the day when humans would walk the Moon—indeed, much of the same team was involved in both efforts. Yet in the near term, that team created “Vengeance Weapons” using slave labor at both Peenemunde and the barbaric, underground Mittlewerk production facility (also presided over by key team members). The inaccurate V-2s were purely terrorist weapons, and they led directly to the nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that have terrorized the world since the late ’50s.

My urgent desire to see NASA move forward with exploration will take a backseat to concern for the well-being of my country and the world.

Even those of Von Braun’s team who were patriotic Germans and/or hated Jews and foreigners as they had been raised to do, must surely have felt some guilt for the concentration camp victims who suffered in front of, and because of, them; for those unknown civilians on whom their weapons fell; and later for the threat their rockets posed to the world. Yet Von Braun and his teammates shilled the notion that they were always looking at the stars, that all they merely wanted was to build space vehicles. This was indeed their great opportunity to do so; it only came at a terrible moral cost, away from which the team members (if not the world) seem largely to have looked.

So it is that, at a much smaller and personal level, the example of Von Braun instructs me in voting against Bush/Cheney. Given that I (among many others) are opposed to, and fearful of, what the pair might do in a second term, my urgent desire to see NASA move forward with exploration—born of frustration by the end of Apollo when I was a child, borne out by the space activism work that consumed me as an adult—will take a backseat to concern for the well-being of my country and the world. I will do so knowing that an opportunity to move space exploration forward may be lost.

Space 2004: do or die?

Having said all this: is it truly “do or die” for space in this election? Here are several factors to consider:

  • John Kerry has overseen NASA for years as a member of the Science, Technology, and Space Subcommittee, part of the Senate Committee for Commerce, Science and Transportation. As such, he is more aware of the agency and its issues than most. (Bush, on the other hand, is reported never to have visited the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston during his time as governor of Texas.) Kerry has also advocated a project on the scale of Apollo to end the country’s energy dependency, which further demonstrates an appreciation and commitment to technology that he is likely to bring to office.
  • The first fully private spaceflights—both of SpaceShipOne this fall and Elon Musk’s privately-financed Falcon launcher early next year—herald the start of a fast-paced race by private industry to catch up to, and eventually surpass, government space projects. This is bolstered by the fact that Sir Richard Branson is funding a fleet of Rutan-designed tourist vehicles for first launch in only three years, and claims a waiting list of thousands of passengers. Here is a bird in the hand that may be better than the two in with Bush.
  • The success of Peter Diamandis and team in mounting the Ansari X Prize, in garnering support for the follow-on X Prize Cup races, and in inspiring NASA and others to follow the prize model, makes it likely that more big, fast-paced developments in space are in the offing. Even considering just the sea-change in public perception of who can fly in space, it is likely that even more daring ventures—private piloted orbital, perhaps Earth-escape, missions—are not far off.
When I vote for John Kerry on November 2nd, I will do so with a clear conscience that I have made the correct overall choice, with the confidence that the floodgates on private spaceflight have opened.

A caveat: it is possible that Kerry’s proposed tax hikes for the wealthiest, should they be enacted, would chill both investment and participation in the early private space tourism industry, which at this point is a playground being built by billionaires in which millionaires will play. While tax exemptions for the industry seem a good bet and have been discussed, a first-order assumption that tax hikes will be a detriment would seem fair. (None of the space-investing billionaires and millionaires to whom I have written have yet replied on this issue.)

So it is that when I vote for John Kerry on November 2nd, I will do so with a clear conscience that I have made the correct overall choice, with the confidence that the floodgates on private spaceflight have opened—and most importantly, with the hope that America will recover from the excesses of Bush/Cheney to take center stage in the next great wave of space exploration.


Home


Space Access '19'