The vision thing
Members of Congress, though, not only have their own visions for NASA, but their own ideas of how to develop that vision. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), chairman of the science, technology, and space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, would likely agree with any Bush proposal to return to the Moon: Brownback has spoken frequently, if somewhat ineloquently, of the need of the US to “dominate the Earth-Moon orbit.” In recent months he has chaired hearings on a number of far-ranging space topics, from space tourism to lunar exploration.
Speaking at an October 28 breakfast on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Space Transportation Association, Brownback agreed that there needs to be a vision for the US space program, but differed in how that vision should be developed. “We have to step back and really establish a national vision for space, engage the American public with that, and make sure that the vision, once articulated, is sustainable with us as a nation,” he said.
Brownback said that a draft version of a NASA reauthorization bill includes a provision for a commission that would “travel around the country and listen to people” about their interest in the future of the space program. “I look back and ask, ‘Why did George Bush Sr. fail with his plan of going to Mars?’ As I look at that, I don’t know that it sufficiently engaged the public,” he concluded. “This country is capable of great things once we focus, but getting us focused is always a challenge.”
Other Congressmen are taking different approaches to NASA’s vision. Last week Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-SC) introduced S.1821, the National Space Commission Act of 2003, a bill that would create a permanent commission that would initially be charged with reviewing NASA’s shuttle return-to-flight efforts. Beyond that, though, the 12-person commission would perform a more comprehensive review of the nation’s space plans. That report, to be completed by September 2005, would include “recommendations for future national goals for the development and use of space” and “a blueprint of capabilities that could and should be achieved by the end of the present decade, by 2015, and by 2025 in order to better position the Nation to achieve those goals,” according to the text of the legislation.
While this commission would weigh in on any future goals or vision for the US space program, Hollings himself doesn’t believe that it will be within the purview of the commission to draft those goals itself. “My bill is not intended to supplant, nor substitute for, the President’s desire to set a new goal into place for the Human Space Flight Program,” Hollings said in a speech introducing the bill on November 5. “Merely setting a far-reaching goal into place for NASA and for the Nation is not enough. It will not resolve the many complex issues raised by Admiral Harold Gehman and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.”
The bill’s future is, at this early stage, unclear. It has been referred to the Senate Commerce Committee, where Hollings is the ranking minority member, for consideration. When introduced, the bill had six cosponsors, all fellow Democrats; among them was presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts. Hollings has also announced his intent to retire after the 2004 elections, so if his bill is not enacted into law by then, someone else will have to take over the effort.
Yet another path towards a new vision for NASA is establishing goals in law. In September Congressman Nick Lampson (D-TX) reintroduced his Space Exploration Act, a bill he had previously introduced last year only to die in committee. The bill, designated HR 3057, would establish a series of very specific, ambitious goals for NASA’s human spaceflight program. Those goals range from the development of a vehicle within eight years of the bill’s passage that could ferry people from Earth orbit to lunar orbit, to establishment of a “human tended habitation and research facility” on the surface of a Martian moon within 20 years.
“America’s human space flight program is adrift, with no clear vision or commitment to any goals after the completion of the International Space Station,” Lampson said in a statement about the reintroduction of the bill. “The real obstacle we face in overcoming the drift in the nation’s human space flight program is not technological and it’s not financial—it’s the lack of commitment to get started. We don’t need another national commission to come up with goals for human space flight beyond low Earth orbit. What we need is a national commitment to carry out any one of the many worthy goals that have been articulated to date.”
Since its introduction in September, HR 3057 has picked up 28 cosponsors, primarily Democrats and including one (minor) presidential candidate: Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. The bill was referred to the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, but to date no action has been taken within the subcommittee.
Vision and reality
What this review makes clear is that there is widespread interest in developing some kind of vision for NASA in the form of a goal or goals for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. Beyond that general interest, however, there is little consensus regarding not only what that vision should be—Moon, Mars, asteroids, or elsewhere—but how that vision should be developed among the executive and legislative branches and the general public. That dissonance is a recipe for yet another space policy failure.
A vision requires leadership from the highest levels of government—nothing short of the President—but it cannot be imposed on Congress and the public by executive fiat: SEI is proof of that. While Congress must play a role in shaping this vision, it seems unlikely that it can mandate a particular detailed vision through legislation like Lampson’s Space Exploration Act. And although relatively small activist organizations like the Mars Society, National Space Society, and the Planetary Society all push for a bold new direction for space exploration, the general public is, if not less interested, less engaged in the debate; moreover, support for NASA among the various sectors of the American public is not universal. (See “The gaps in NASA’s support”, August 18, 2003.)
These are all concerns that need to be addressed if any vision can be successfully translated from speeches to spacecraft. Next year is an election year, and the focus of the presidential and congressional campaigns will be on far bigger issues, notably Iraq and the economy. That makes it unlikely that the President and leading members of Congress will be willing to expend the time and political capital needed to push through a new vision for space exploration, particularly one that may require significant additional funds at a time when budget deficits are approaching half a trillion dollars. Unlike the 1960s, there are no geopolitical or other external factors that could support a new space exploration vision. While some have invoked China’s entry into human space flight as one motivating factor, the slow, methodical pace of their efforts—their publicly-stated plans for the next ten years are no grander than a small space station—have yet to trigger a significant reaction in Washington, and are unlikely to do so. (See “The phony space race”, June 9, 2003)
For now vision is primarily a buzzword: a keyword for a plan that will set NASA off on a new direction and in the process resolve all the other problems the agency faces. It’s a tempting solution, but also too simplistic. “Merely announcing a bold new plan to travel to the Earth’s Moon or to Mars is not sufficient,” Hollings said in his speech last week. “We must challenge our assumptions, question our decisions and designs, revisit our approaches, and rethink our Nation’s ambitions and goals for space. We must submit ourselves to the discipline to begin anew. The future of space and our Nation’s reputation that we carry into history rests in the balance.”
The question remains whether Hollings and his colleagues, as well as the President and the American people, have the willingness to devote the time and energies needed to tackle those tough issues. If not, then any new vision for NASA promulgated in the months to come will render space policy as blind as it has been for the last few decades.