The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

In creating a new direction for the US in space, Barack Obama could do well to pay heed of the lessons from a previous president. (credit:

President Obama’s space policy: learning from Eisenhower

Should Senator Barack Obama be inaugurated as president in January 2009, he will arrive in office with only the barest notion of the way he will deal with NASA and the commercial space industry.

Fifty years ago, on July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, and in so doing established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Eisenhower was motivated by the recent Soviet launch of Sputnik, and the seeming lack of capability to match the Russians within the United States military, which had been responsible for developing rocket programs to that time.

If Obama is tempted to look for a unique path for NASA during his first term, he could do worse than channeling his across-the-aisle predecessor in President Eisenhower.

When Eisenhower was born in 1890, the United States was a mostly inward-looking nation, 114 years old, that had been wracked just a generation earlier by civil war, but still held the ideals of the Founding Fathers as recent and relevant history. The potential of the nation—its “manifest destiny”—had been recognized as early as 1840 during the rush westwards, but George Washington, with the example of ancient Rome in mind, wrote in 1783: “…a large standing Army in time of Peace hath ever been considered dangerous to the liberties of a Country…” And, in his Farwell Address in 1796, he warned of foreign entanglements and for remaining neutral, and above the continual disagreements of the rest of the world:

“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality, we may at any time resolve upon, to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

When Eisenhower was born in northeast Texas in 1890, the United States had not yet fought the Spanish-American war, which led to the acquisition of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. As the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War 2, Eisenhower was well aware that during his lifetime, the United States had morphed from a country with virtually no foreign entanglements to the single most powerful nation in the world and the “arsenal of democracy”, as Franklin Roosevelt put it.

In Eisenhower’s farewell address, broadcast on television on January 7, 1961, the departing president and former general chose to address what he saw as future perils for the nation he had served since his enlistment in 1915:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

Today, the military-industrial complex Eisenhower first identified is composed of three parts: the military, the corporations that service the military, and Congress. They have become so deeply entwined in an iron triangle that it is difficult to treat one corner without affecting the other.

Eisenhower did not shy away from the new realities facing the United States, but he was clearly uncomfortable with the “unwarranted influence” that corporations were gaining over the government in the military sphere. His brilliant decision to create NASA was probably motivated in part to use the technological capabilities of the military-industrial complex for more peaceful means.

President Kennedy was barely four months into his administration when he dedicated NASA to go to the Moon. It is likely that President Obama will not have time to change NASA’s mission, and he seems not to have a personal or abiding interest in the space program (although he expressed support for it in a speech in Florida in August). It is likely that the next NASA Administrator and Democratic members of Congress will have a far greater hand than the President in the guidance of NASA in the early years of an Obama administration.

However, if Obama is tempted to look for a unique path for NASA during his first term, he could do worse than channeling his across-the-aisle predecessor in President Eisenhower. Obama has presented himself as a change candidate, and many acknowledge that the domestic economic housing crises, the energy crisis, and the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will require corrections by the president. I offer three actions Obama could take in his first term in office in order to change NASA into a tool for the rebuilding of America.

1. Divert money from the military-industrial complex to the space-industrial complex

The current war in Iraq, and the predilection of the current government for privatization of defense and intelligence services, have led to massive contracts being signed with defense companies including Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. Millions of American jobs are intimately tied to these contracts. These jobs are spread across the country, in all walks of life.

It is likely that an Obama administration will attempt to adjust one corner of the military-industrial complex iron triangle by reducing the defense budget. The defense budget is currently $440 billion, excluding $170 billion in extra budgetary supplements the Bush administration uses to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By historical comparison, the Reagan administration Cold War defense budget peaked at $375 billion and this gradually decreased throughout most of the Clinton administration to $265 billion in 1997 (budgets measured in 1995 dollars).

President Obama would have the opportunity to commence a “swords to plowshares” movement that would be a cornerstone of American thinking in the 21st century.

NASA’s 2008 budget is $17.3 billion dollars, about 0.6% of the overall US federal budget of $2.73 trillion. In 2008, $2.5 billion of that NASA budget is being spent on the Constellation project to return America to the Moon, and roughly $5 billion is spent on the Shuttle and ISS. The Shuttle will be retired in 2010 and $3 billion will be moved from Shuttle for the expansion of the Constellation program to $7 billion in 2011.

If one presumes that an Obama administration will attempt to reduce the defense budget at the same rate the Clinton administration did (roughly $20 billion per year), it is likely to disenfranchise employees at the major defense contractors and associated smaller partners. This effect could be ameliorated by allocating $3 billion of the defense budget decrease to the NASA budget, to be spent on programs within the United States.

2. Commit NASA to landing a man on the Moon by the end of 2016

Unlike George Bush four years ago, a new Obama administration will be presented the opportunity to achieve the goal of returning humans to the Moon within their conceivable term in government (presuming Obama wins a second term). In his September 2005 “Apollo on Steroids” speech, NASA Administrator Griffin mentioned a target of 2018 for the first human return to the Moon, in order to meet the President’s goal of “no later than 2020”. The first launch of the Ares 1-X rocket is scheduled for next year and it is possible NASA may be on schedule for a 2017 return to the Moon.

In the first year of his administration, perhaps following the first successful Ares 1-X launch, President Obama could announce the $3 billion increase in the 2010 NASA budget with the goal of returning humans to the Moon by the end of 2016. This would increase NASA’s projected 2010 budget to $21 billion, or 0.77% of the current overall federal budget, and allow work on Constellation to be bought forward by one year. This would also give NASA more flexibility dealing with its Space Shuttle workforce in Florida and at Johnson Space Center in Houston, a goal that Obama has stated he supports.

It is unlikely that President Obama would be personally motivated to return to the Moon, however, his dedication to education and the inspiration of a new generation are themes of his campaign and would be cornerstones of the new NASA and the revitalized American space program.

President Obama would have the opportunity to commence a “swords to plowshares” movement that would be a cornerstone of American thinking in the 21st century. The drumbeat of Project Constellation test launches that would accompany his two terms in office would be a fitting accompaniment to his soaring oratory and an inspiration to the next generation.

3. Open a new NASA center to commercialize space in the southwestern United States

Finally, President Obama would have the opportunity to invest in political capital while building up the United States’ space program and injecting it with fresh energy and ideas.

President Obama should open a new NASA center, perhaps in New Mexico or Nevada, dedicated to the commercialization of space. Politically, these are important swing states that Obama may carry in November. Technologically and geographically, these states are well placed to take part in a boom in an expanded commercial space program. Bigelow Aerospace and Virgin Galactic have chosen these states as their homes, and California’s Mojave is home to Scaled Composites and several other NewSpace companies.

NASA has so far developed a low-key Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, but it seems to be in danger of withering on the vine. Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) and SpaceX were initial awardees of this program and RpK’s contract was terminated after they failed to raise sufficient private funds to match NASA dollars. Orbital Sciences has since received a COTS award, but there is not enough money in the program currently to fund a crew transportation option that will become critical for accessing the ISS once the Shuttle is retired.

Obama should open a new NASA center, perhaps in New Mexico or Nevada, dedicated to the commercialization of space.

The commercialization of space is too important to fund development by only two firms concurrently. The new NASA center would be dedicated to finding ways to encourage the operations of private firms in space, funded in part by decreases in defense spending. Technology and responsibility transfer for all elements of the human spaceflight program are crucial to ensuring NASA will have commercial partners who can take over resupply of an eventual Moon base, freeing NASA to complete its mission to send humans to Mars in the first half of this century.

It will require sustained leadership to ensure the United States remains on target for humans to Mars by 2030. To co-opt the words of Eisenhower once more:

“Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”