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President Bush at NASA
President George W. Bush at NASA Headquarters in January 2004, unveiling the Vision for Space Exploration. Just how important are such policy pronouncements to the overall space program? (credit: White House)

Whither presidential space policy?

For decades, space advocates have turned to the White House to seek a new direction for, or an affirmation of the current direction of, the nation’s space programs. From the origins of NASA in the late 1950s to the development of the Vision for Space Exploration today, the aerospace community has looked to the White House to provide leadership on space policy—and have complained, often bitterly, when that leadership appeared to be lacking.

Yet how essential is that leadership, usually expressed in the form of national space policies, to NASA, other government agencies, and the industry? That question has relevance today since the Bush Administration, despite being in the second year of its second term, has yet to release an overarching national space policy. But, as some noted at a recent forum on national space policy organized by the Marshall Institute in Washington, having a national space policy may not be that big of a deal.

Kennedy’s legacy

National space policies are nothing new: the first was articulated by President Eisenhower at the opening of the Space Age. When most people in the space community think of space policies to emulate, though, they turn to President Kennedy and his 1961 declaration that the US would send people to the Moon and back by the end of the 1960s. That, some believe, has become the model for what people expect from the presidency for space policy.

“Space advocates—the people who were especially interested in the civil side of the house—were very comforted by the idea of the ‘imperial presidency’,” said Roger Launius, chairman of the National Air and Space Museum’s space history department and co-editor of the 1997 book Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership. “They believed fundamentally that if you convinced the president to do something, then it would happen. The Apollo decision of 1961 is the classic example of this.”

Space advocates, Launius said, “believed fundamentally that if you convinced the president to do something, then it would happen. The Apollo decision of 1961 is the classic example of this.”

That has created high expectations in the community for a president with vision and leadership like Kennedy’s, something Launius encountered many times when he worked as NASA’s chief historian. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard at NASA while I was there, or since I left in 2002, ‘You know, if we just had a president with the vision of John Kennedy, all would be well.’”

The problem, though, is that several presidents have made similar pronouncements since Kennedy, and as Launius put it, “it hasn’t quite turned out in the same way.” Kennedy’s success was less a testament to his vision than an “anomaly in the policymaking process” because events in the spring of 1961—from the Bay of Pigs to the flight of Yuri Gagarin—created a situation where “Kennedy could actually make this kind of statement and not be laughed off the floor of the Congress.”

What isn’t recognized by many, however, Launius noted, is that within weeks of his May 1961 announcement Kennedy was trying to find ways to get out of his bold pronouncement, asking Nikita Khrushchev at a June 1961 summit meeting that a manned mission to the Moon should be done as a joint project. While Khrushchev didn’t agree then, Kennedy persisted, and in the fall of 1963 he was again “aggressively pursuing” a joint project, asking James Webb, the NASA administrator at the time, to come up with a plan for just a venture by the end of the year. Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination ended talk of a joint project, as Lyndon Johnson committed the country to carrying out Kennedy’s original goal.

“It was a unique time and circumstance, and I don’t think we’re going to see it again in our lifetimes,” Launius concluded. Not even if the Chinese space program rekindles a space race? “If they landed on the Moon, went to Tranquility Base, picked up our flag, brought it back, and sold it on eBay, people would be very excited,” he quipped. “But, absent a serious effort from the Chinese, I don’t think anybody is going to be too concerned.”

Space policy today

That analysis explains why later efforts, such as George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative, fell by the wayside—and may be cause for concern among supporters of the current President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. National space policy, however, manifests itself as more than just bold pronouncements. Every president since Jimmy Carter has issued a general national space policy statement, a set of goals and guidelines that has governed overall policy. While the details of those policies have changed from administration to administration, Cargill Hall, historian emeritus of the National Reconnaissance Office, noted that “a few basic principles have undergirded US space policy” since the Eisenhower administration. Those principles ranged from the rejection of claims of sovereignty of celestial bodies and the right of free passage of spacecraft to the clear delineation of roles in space among the civil, military, and intelligence sectors.

Apollo “was a unique time and circumstance, and I don’t think we’re going to see it again in our lifetimes,” Launius concluded.

One exception to that series of national space policies—so far—has been the current administration, which has yet to issue its own overall policy. “Now we’re in the interesting situation with the current administration where we are assured the release [of a national space policy] is imminent,” said Richard Buenneke, a senior policy analyst with The Aerospace Corporation. But, he added, “there were leaks and press stories a year ago saying that the release was imminent. So we’ll see when it actually comes out.”

By contrast, Buenneke noted, the previous four administrations all issued their national space policies in their first (and in the Carter and G.H.W. Bush cases, only) term; the Reagan Administration issued two, with the second coming after the Challenger accident. The Clinton Administration waited the longest of the four, not issuing its space policy document until the fall of 1996, near the end of its first term.

One reason the Clinton Administration took so long with developing its space policy was upheaval and chaos inside the White House early in the administration, suggested Richard DalBello, a staffer who worked on space policy issues during the Clinton Administration and who is now the vice president of government relations at Intelsat General Corporation. “I think all early administrations are chaotic, but I think the Clinton Administration probably set new standards for chaos,” he said. In addition, a plan by the administration to cut White House staff by 20 percent meant the end of the Space Council, which had been resurrected during the previous administration; its responsibilities were devolved back to the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

That explanation, though, doesn’t seem to apply to the Bush Administration, which has not publicly exhibited the same degree of chaos that marked the early Clinton years. Whatever the reasons are that have delayed the overall policy, some analysts note that the longer it waits, the less effective the policy will be once it’s released. “Is this really going to be a directive, or more of a commemoration booklet?” asked Buenneke.

Another problem with the delay is that second terms of administrations tend to be less productive than the first. “As you get into your second term, there’s less of the unity that existed in the first term, the willingness to work together to resolve differences,” DalBello said. “You get a much different feel in the second term.”

Some analysts note that the longer the administration waits, the less effective the policy will be once it’s released. “Is this really going to be a directive, or more of a commemoration booklet?” asked Buenneke.

However, while the Bush administration has not issued a comprehensive national space policy, it has issued a number of topic-specific space policies, from the Vision for Space Exploration to documents on commercial remote sensing, space transportation, and navigation. Does that collection of specific policies make up for a lack of a general policy? “I think you do both,” said DalBello. “I think what happens is that you tend to solve problems as they come up.” Later, he said, you put those policies together into a “greatest hits album” to synthesize the viewpoints of the separate topic-specific policies.

Another advantage to developing a comprehensive policy, Buenneke added, keeping with the album analogy, is that “the extra track that’s added, if you will, or maybe the extra side, is the national security part.”

There’s also no indication that the lack of a national space policy is hindering current efforts, including at NASA. “I don’t think [NASA administrator] Mike Griffin has to look to the White House for what he needs from a policy standpoint,” Buenneke said. “He’s got that; he just needs the budget and Congressional lobbying and those sorts of things. But he’s got a pretty clear path right now.”

So, is a national space policy perhaps something of an anachronism, an item dating back to the Cold War origins of the Space Age and overly revered by space advocates? That might be going too far, but the fact that the current administration hasn’t yet issued its own policy—and that such a policy is likely to share many of the same principles of policies dating back nearly half a century—doesn’t seem to be hindering current efforts, nor causing people inside the Beltway to lose much sleep.

What may cause people to lose sleep down the road, though, is what happens when the next administration takes office in 2009. DalBello recalled that when the Clinton administration took office in 1993 it faced a budget crisis that put two big science programs on the chopping block: Space Station Freedom (which survived by morphing into the International Space Station), and the Superconducting Supercollider (which did not). “For all the NASA folks, be ready for the next administration,” he warned, “because the same thing is going to play itself out. The days of ‘we’re not worried about budget deficits’ are going to go backwards, and we’re going to start getting disciplined again. And when that discipline happens, boom! These programs get hurt.” And if that happens, it may not matter what the national space policy is.


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