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Brilliant Pebbles illustration
The new national space policy leaves the door open for space-based missile defense systems, like the old Brilliant Pebbles concept, to the consternation of some. (credit: Ball Aerospace)

A message from deep blue America

The Berkshire Eagle, based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, used to have a reputation as a “farm team” for the New York Times. As a small liberal newspaper in a very liberal state, its ideas tend to reflect those of the core of the Democratic Party. So, when it makes an editorial pronouncement on space policy, the space community and the space industry should pay attention, especially since it is election time.

A week or so ago they published an editorial blasting the Bush Administration’s new national space policy. Titled “Policing the final frontier”, it accuses the administration for having “…undertaken to be the final authority in outer space…” Of course, the new policy makes little, if any, change in this regard from the one the Clinton White House put out in 1996, but since Bush’s language is a bit less diplomatic, the Eagle calls down the fires of heaven on him and all his minions.

Going back to the Moon or eventually to Mars are, according to them, “elaborate and expensive photo opportunities” that somehow detract from “unmanned research and exploration”—as if only robots are allowed to do science in space.

The Clinton-era document said that “Consistent with treaty obligations, the United States will develop, operate, and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries.” Sounds a lot like a slightly softer version of Bush’s cowboy unilateralism. In fact, the US has always kept open the option of deploying weapons in space; the only limits have been the ones against weapons of mass destruction in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the ones against missile defense systems in the (now thankfully defunct) 1972 ABM Treaty.

In 1989, when then Soviet Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze stood up in front of the UN General Assembly and admitted that the USSR had been blatantly violating the ABM Treaty, the debate on the ABM Treaty should have been over. However, it took this president to have the guts to withdraw from it and allow the Missile Defense Agency to do its job without a couple brigades of lawyers telling the scientists and engineers what they can and cannot do.

So when, in 2006, the Eagle finds it necessary to slam “President Ronald Reagan’s absurd Strategic Defense Initiative” (SDI) they are saying more about their own mindset than about the realities of Missile Defense then and now. To begin with, SDI was designed to acknowledge Issac Newton’s “absurd” law of gravity: it takes a lot of effort to ignore that it is easier to be “up” and to shoot “down” than it is to be down and shoot up. SDI changed the nature of the US-Soviet arms race from a contest of who could build the bigger nuclear stockpile to which side had the better technology.

The editorial seems to believe that missile defense was put to rest “until the Bush Administration arrived and gave it new life.” This is simply not so: the currently deployed rudimentary missile defense system is largely based on the national missile defense program developed during the Clinton years. It may have it flaws, but it’s better than nothing. At some point soon we may move back to an improved version of the “Brilliant Pebbles” space-based interceptors that the first Bush Administration had hoped to build, but throughout the eight years of the Clinton Administration, under pressure from the GOP Congress, several programs moved forward and some are beginning to show real promise.

The Eagle is not content with denouncing the Administration’s military space policy. It is also not too happy about Bush sending humans up their either. Going back to the Moon or eventually to Mars are, according to them, “elaborate and expensive photo opportunities” that somehow detract from “unmanned research and exploration”—as if only robots are allowed to do science in space.

They may not realize what many space scientists, including the late Carl Sagan in his final years, have come to accept: that the US government’s civilian space program cannot exist without both vigorous human and robotic activities. If the astronauts were grounded—and that is the implied in the Eagle’s editorial—the rest of the space program would soon lose momentum and funding. The Bush administration has kept up most of the robotic exploration programs begun by previous administrations, including the Mars projects and some very valuable solar physics programs, such as the STEREO probes that were launched last week. Under pressure from Congress they even reinstated the Pluto Express program, renamed New Horizons, that it is now well on its way for a 2015 flyby of that “planet”. (I’m old fashioned, so sue me.)

The best thing about the Vision for Space Exploration is that it is not just a Bush Administration idea: some Democrats are supporting the idea. For them, as for many Republicans, the fact that no human being has gone beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) since 1972 is disgraceful.

Robots have their limits. No robot, for example, could be expected to perform the Hubble repair mission, at least not without spending the Gross National Product of Panama or more. It has been estimated that a trained human geologist will be able to tell more about the history of Mars in the first five minutes of his or her first Marswalk than all the previous robots put together. Most important of all is the fact that the exploration and colonization of the solar system is needed to eventually provide the Earth’s population with the resources they will need as more and more people aspire to a decent and prosperous lifestyle.

The best thing about the Vision for Space Exploration is that it is not just a Bush Administration idea: some Democrats such as Nick Lampson, who is running for Tom DeLay’s old seat, and Sen. Barbara Milkulski are supporting the idea. For Democrats like them, as for many Republicans, the fact that no human being has gone beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) since 1972 is disgraceful. Going back to the Moon and building a permanent base there is a first step towards the colonization of the solar system.

The plan to retire the shuttle and develop and build hardware that will take humans to the ISS, the Moon, and perhaps in the long term to Mars is based on a realistic estimate of what the nation is willing to pay for. NASA consumes less that one percent of the federal budget, and that is not going to change. We can either spend that money to go back to the Moon or we can spend it to keep going in circles.

Finally, the Eagle attacks Bush for refusing to “consider any kind of multilateral action, in concert with other nations of the world.” The refusal to enter into international agreements just for the sake of having something to sign has been one of the best aspects of this administration’s policy, both on the civilian and military sides. Like its predecessors, it has refused to rule out the deployment and use of American space weapons. Large, expensive, defenseless spy satellites in LEO are tempting targets. They are going to need protection, both passive and active, in the near future. Space is already a theater of war, and thus it is only prudent that the US be prepared to fight and prevail there, just as it does on land, air, and sea.

In other areas, this administration has negotiated hardheaded agreements with Europe on their new Galileo satellite navigation system and it has forged a new and promising civil space relationship with India. In spite of the Columbia disaster, it has worked hard to keep America’s commitments to its ISS partners. The US has maintained a high level of international scientific cooperation, such as providing Europeans with access to the Deep Space Network for communications with their Rosetta comet probe. Yet, as NASA administrator Mike Griffin recently explained to an international conference, he has stopped paying serious attention to foreign governments whose primary interests were in “helping NASA to spend its money.” It is not part of NASA’s function to help grow the aerospace industries of other nations, and it’s nice to see leaders who remember that.


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