Negative symbolism, or why America will continue to fly astronauts
by Dwayne A. Day
|The United States will maintain a human spaceflight program because the political costs of shutting down or discontinuing human spaceflight are greater than the political costs of continuing it.|
America kept its human spaceflight program, but clearly the transition from one phase of human spaceflight—Apollo—to another—shuttle—had led to a high-level debate over whether it was worth continuing to spend large amounts of money to continue human spaceflight. As Weinberger’s memo shows, practical domestic considerations such as lowering launch costs and keeping scientists and engineers employed were important. But also important were less quantifiable factors, such as demonstrating American superiority. There were also abstract gut-level emotional appeals, such as the statement that “America should be able to afford” something besides social programs.
The American space program is driven by politics of many sorts: international, bureaucratic, and domestic, none of them sufficient on their own to maintain the program, but complexly intertwined to continue it and transform it.
Human spaceflight was born of the Cold War as symbolic international posturing. Although scientists and doctors had an interest in studying human physiology in space, their questions were never high priorities in any medical or scientific discipline. The military struggled for over a decade to find a mission that humans could perform in space better than robots before finally abandoning the effort. For military missions, robots were more precise, and far cheaper.
So for decades the United States launched humans into space for prestige, measured against similar Soviet accomplishments, not for practical scientific or research goals. This was in essence positive symbolism—each new space achievement acquired political capital for the United States, primarily on the international stage. As Caspar Weinberger noted, space achievements gave “the people of the world an equally needed look at American superiority.” But they also gave “the American people a much needed lift in spirit.”
But even when the space race subsided after Apollo, and even when the Cold War finally (surprisingly) ended in 1989, American human spaceflight continued, despite the fact that its international and domestic symbolism had greatly diminished in importance.
|Probably more important than bureaucratic inertia in the post-Cold War era was another factor: ending human spaceflight would be a powerful negative symbolic act, potentially indicating a lack of political will or economic capability.|
Supporters often claimed that the shuttle and space station programs had scientific benefits, even when various scientific associations argued that any scientific benefits were meager and not worth the billions it cost simply to put humans in orbit and keep them alive there. However, it was bureaucratic inertia that propelled the program forward, factors such as the need to keep people employed in key states.
Probably more important than bureaucratic inertia in the post-Cold War era was another factor: ending human spaceflight would be a powerful negative symbolic act, potentially indicating a lack of political will or economic capability. Thus, rather than symbolic acts that earned the United States prestige, the human spaceflight program continued because shutting it down, especially while the Russians continued to fly Soyuz spacecraft to Mir, would cause the United States to lose prestige.
The Russians experienced a harsher version of this dilemma at that time. With their economy in perilous shape the Russian government considered shutting down their human spaceflight program, and at one point a cosmonaut stayed at Mir far beyond his planned duration because of the economic costs of retrieving him. But ultimately the Russians determined that ending their human space program would symbolize their decline as a technological power, and so they continued the program.
As the Weinberger memo also indicates, there are also times when stopping may cause a lower relative loss of prestige than at other times. These periods occur during natural gaps between programs, as demonstrated by the dispute in the summer of 1971 when Apollo was winding down and the shuttle had not yet been approved. At that time the United States was facing an upcoming gap in human access to space. The country is now facing another such gap.
Current administration policy is to halt the shuttle program by the end of 2010. That date could be extended, but pushing it much beyond 2010 will be hard to justify and even harder to pay for—whatever NASA and White House officials are in power at the end of this decade, they will all recognize that as long as shuttle is active, it will consume large amounts of money that could be spent on other things, particularly a replacement that will have fewer vulnerabilities than the shuttle.
NASA Administrator Griffin entered office concerned that there was a four-year gap between the end of the shuttle and the first manned mission of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV. Griffin has argued that a long gap is ultimately dangerous, for it will lead to loss of skills and personnel in the human spaceflight industrial base, and has vowed to reduce the gap to only two years. However, any transitional period makes it easier for people to contemplate ending the program completely, particularly if that transitional period becomes long.
|Members of Congress would likely react strongly to a situation whereby Russia and China have the ability to place humans in orbit, but the United States does not. And an American president—any American president—would be unlikely to tolerate such a situation.|
Arguably, the United States is already experiencing a gap in human access to space. After the Columbia accident, the shuttle was grounded for two and a half years. After the Discovery launch in July 2005, the shuttle was again grounded, for what now optimistically looks like three quarters of a year, but could be longer. Both cases are perhaps better described as pauses rather than gaps, because the plan has always been to return the shuttle to flight, but this remains something of a semantic difference. The shuttle was not flying and Americans who wanted to reach orbit had to do so on Russian spacecraft. Not coincidentally, during these pauses it was more common to hear vague or even explicit demands that the United States end human spaceflight and divert the money elsewhere. These demands were usually voiced by people with no political power. But in 2003, when White House and executive branch staffers were debating the future of NASA, there was at least one proposal from an executive branch office to retire the shuttle and discontinue human spaceflight completely. That proposal was rejected almost immediately.
The CEV is the first major step in implementing the key part of the Vision for Space Exploration, the return to the Moon. Although it will require essentially no new technology development and therefore should be a fairly straightforward vehicle to engineer, it is entirely possible that the schedule could slip and the project go over budget. Thus, the planned two-year gap between shuttle and CEV could easily grow, leaving the United States incapable of launching humans in an American spacecraft.
Even if the CEV experiences development problems, though, it seems highly unlikely that future political leaders would also cancel the CEV and end the American human space program. Such an act might be possible if there were no other countries with human space programs. However, the existence of Russia and especially China as other human spaceflight powers make this unlikely. They represent the backstop against any future attempt to halt American human spaceflight.
Russia and China’s continued presence in space dramatically increases the negative symbolism of an American withdrawal from space flight. Russia is a political rival to the United States and China is a military and economic rival. Fortunately, this rivalry is not the same degree or veracity as that which existed during the Cold War, but it is still a rivalry. The United States would not be ceding spaceflight to traditional allies but to latent adversaries. If the rival space powers were Australia and Britain, the decision might be easier.
To date, only a few members of Congress have expressed uneasiness with the gap between the end of the shuttle program and the availability of the CEV. Most members of Congress never think about space policy until they are forced to, such as during a vote on the budget. But members of Congress would likely react strongly to a situation whereby Russia and China have the ability to place humans in orbit, but the United States does not. And an American president—any American president—would be unlikely to tolerate such a situation. There might be no practical, quantifiable loss from such a decision—certainly for the foreseeable future there would be no loss to science—but there would be a blow to national pride, and such a decision would leave a president open to political criticism.
As long as the Chinese and Russians continue to fly their cosmonauts and taikonauts, there will always be a powerful, if primarily emotional, argument for continuing the American human spaceflight program. That situation is unlikely to change. The three spacefaring powers are now locked in an invisible web of political interdependence, from which none is likely to withdraw.