The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Obama on Election Night
President-Elect Barack Obama prepares to take office with a space policy in hand but many challenges facing the new administration. (credit:

The transition from politics to policy

For much of the 2008 presidential campaign, space got an unusual degree of attention from the candidates. Normally a niche issue that gets virtually no attention from candidates, space policy warranted a number of statements from both Democrats and Republicans alike, culminating in August in the release of detailed statements by the campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama on how they would deal with space if elected (see “Space policy heats up this summer”, The Space Review, August 18, 2008). While still overshadowed by foreign policy, the economy, and other major issues, space got far more attention in 2008 than in many previous presidential campaigns.

It’s ironic, then, that for the attention paid to space in the campaign, as an electoral strategy it turned out to be neither effective nor necessary.

Part of that attention, no doubt, was because of the transition NASA is facing as it completes the International Space Station, winds down the Space Shuttle program, and focuses on new vehicles and a planned return to the Moon. Electoral politics, though, also played a role: the “Space Coast” region of Florida that includes Cape Canaveral and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center lies on the eastern end of Florida’s “I-4 corridor”, named after the highway that runs across central Florida from Daytona Beach to Tampa. Political experts deemed winning that region of the state critical to carrying the entire state and its 27 electoral votes, one-tenth of the total needed to win the presidency. Paying attention to key issues affecting voters in that area—which meant, for those on the Space Coast, the future of NASA—was thus critical to the campaigns. That’s why when the candidates did speak publicly about space, they typically did so in Florida: Obama in Titusville in August and McCain in Melbourne in October, for example.

It’s ironic, then, that as an electoral strategy it turned out to be neither effective nor necessary. Brevard County, the heart of the Space Coast, was won by McCain by 30,000 votes, a 55–44 percent margin. That was a narrower margin than in 2004, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by 58 to 42 percent. That shift, though, was consistent with trends in many other Florida counties, including those with no connection with space. Polk County, located between Orlando and Tampa, went 53–47 for McCain in 2008 but 59–41 for Bush in 2004. Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, went 51–49 for McCain but 58–42 for Bush four years ago. Obama’s loss in Brevard was counteracted by much bigger wins in more populous counties along the I-4 corridor, including Orange (Orlando), Pinellas (St. Petersburg), and Hillsborough (Tampa). That, coupled with big victories in south Florida, allowed Obama to carry the state by over 200,000 votes. And Florida itself, unlike in the infamous 2000 election, was not crucial to the outcome of the overall election: had he lost the state, Obama would have still won a sizable majority of the Electoral College.

So while space wasn’t crucial to the outcome of the election, as some observers had expected—or at least hoped—earlier in the campaign, the attention that the candidates lavished on the topic did leave one legacy: a detailed space policy statement that will presumably serve as the basis for President-Elect Obama’s space policy. However, one assumes that there will be changes in that policy as the new administration works to implement it. In the three months since the policy’s release the economy has taken a turn for the worse, something that will have across-the-board effects on policies, including space. There will also be opportunities to refine and tweak the policy as the new administration gets up to speed. In that spirit—and acknowledging that the transition team is getting bombarded with plenty of unsolicited advice right about now—here are some suggestions on how the incoming administration can refine or alter that policy for the better.

The big decisions

Immediately after the election, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a list of urgent issues the next administration will have to make decisions on shortly after taking office. Included in that list, which ranged from future policy in Iraq and Afghanistan to the 2010 Census and the upcoming transition to digital television was the retirement of the shuttle. “A decision that must be made soon whether to retire the Space Shuttle in 2010, as currently planned, or to extend its life in view of limited options for supporting the International Space Station,” the GAO argued, summarizing the arguments for extending the shuttle versus keeping it on track for retirement.

Meanwhile, there continues to be debate and concerns about the progress of the shuttle’s successor, Constellation, and in particular the Ares 1 launcher. Just last month the Orlando Sentinel reported that, in some circumstances, winds could cause the rocket to drift immediately after liftoff into its launch tower. (To further underscore the point, the article’s headline was “Is NASA’s Ares doomed?”). While NASA officials later denied the problem was that serious, the agency has been on the defensive about the vehicle’s progress in recent months, and more than a few people would like to see the new administration at least revisit the current architecture, if not immediately cancel it.

Intertwined with those issues, though, is another question: who will lead NASA in the Obama Administration? The conventional wisdom is that current administrator Mike Griffin will not be retained by the new president, and a long list of potential replacements has emerged, including well-known people like Sally Ride (who endorsed Obama in a Sentinel op-ed shortly before the election) to more obscure and less likely candidates, like PlanetSpace chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria (named in a brief Aviation Week article the week before the election). However, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who endorsed Obama’s space policy when it was released in August, told Obama’s NASA transition team last week he would like the new president to keep Griffin in place until they identify a “surefire” replacement.

And that presents a conundrum for the new administration. There’s a strong argument for revisiting some of the key decisions of the last few years, including the Ares/Orion decision and how long to continue flying the shuttle. To have NASA examine those decisions under the current leadership, though, would likely result in endorsement of those choices: the Constellation architecture in particular is closely associated with Griffin, who led a study for the Planetary Society prior to becoming administrator that proposed something very similar to Ares 1 and Ares 5. Yet a new administrator needs some idea of what direction the presidential administration wants to go, and their level of support.

There’s a strong argument for revisiting some of the key decisions of the last few years, but to have NASA examine those decisions under the current leadership would likely result in endorsement of those choices.

Sen. Nelson said last week he supported the status quo for NASA, with the exception of flying additional shuttle flights beyond the current manifest. The Obama space policy published in August largely supports that, calling for at least one additional shuttle flight—since authorized by Congress—and accelerating the development of Constellation (although it is not mentioned by name; the policy instead refers to the “Shuttle’s successor systems”). However, that policy was largely written for consumption by Space Coast voters, concerned about the effect the currently-planned five-year gap, and thousands of layoffs at KSC, will have on the region’s economy. For the nation as a whole, though, the current approach may not be the best one, but it will require a delicate balance by the new administration to determine what the approach should be and who should be responsible for implementing it.

Relaxing deadlines

The Obama Administration will also inherit a number of deadlines laid out by President Bush when he announced the Vision for Space Exploration in January 2004, including not just the shuttle retirement date of 2010 but also the 2020 goal of returning humans to the Moon. However, various delays have put those deadlines in jeopardy. One of them will soon officially be missed: Bush had called for the first in a series of robotic lunar precursor missions to be launched by 2008, but the launch of that first mission, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), has now been delayed until at least April 2009.

The 2010 retirement date for the shuttle is also in jeopardy, regardless of any decision to add additional flights. A report issued last week by the Congressional Budget Office estimates that NASA has no better than a 30-percent chance, and as little as 5 percent, of completing 11 remaining shuttle flights—the 10 on the original manifest plus the one added by Congress this fall to fly the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS—by September 2010. Dropping that additional shuttle mission improves the odds of success somewhat, to between 20 and 60 percent, but still suggests it will be very difficult to fly out the remaining missions by the original deadline.

However, there is nothing magical about 2010. Some have cited the recommendation by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) to “re-certify” the shuttle if it is to fly beyond 2010 as a reason to hold firm to that deadline, even it means trimming missions from the manifest. While the CAIB’s recommendation is a good argument for not flying the shuttle indefinitely, as some would hope, it doesn’t mean the shuttle suddenly becomes unsafe to fly in January 2011 (or October 2010, the beginning of fiscal year 2011). Extending the shuttle does have a financial impact on NASA, since the agency has relied on the shuttle’s retirement to free up funding for Constellation, but flying the shuttle into 2011, if needed, to carry out the remaining flights is a good investment to ensure the station is properly assembled and outfitted.

Likewise, the 2020 goal for returning humans to the Moon—endorsed by Obama in his August space policy document—is an arbitrary deadline: the Moon does not go away, or become more difficult to reach, in 2021 or beyond. China’s advancing space program has been used as an argument for NASA to get back to the Moon as soon as possible, but it appears even China is not in a particular hurry to get there: recent statements by Chinese media have indicated that their 2020 goal is to develop a small space station, not land a “taikonaut” on the Moon.

Deadlines are useful for focusing attention on a specific goal. However, those deadlines have to be reasonable, given technical capabilities and financial resources. The incoming administration should be willing to reexamine the deadlines set by the previous administration and not be held to them if they no longer seem realistic.

Export control: deeds, not words

One of the nastiest four-letter words in the space industry is ITAR. Officially International Traffic in Arms Regulations, ITAR refers to the current export control regime in the US that makes it difficult for American companies to export space hardware to other countries, or even have technical discussions with potential customers. Since most satellites and related components were added to the US Munitions List a decade ago by an act of Congress, US companies have lost market share in many areas to European and other competitors.

Deadlines are useful for focusing attention on a specific goal. However, those deadlines have to be reasonable, given technical capabilities and financial resources.

In his space policy, Obama recognizes those concerns and promises to “direct a review of the ITAR to reevaluate restrictions imposed on American companies, with a special focus on space hardware that is currently restricted from commercial export.” However, it’s not clear what such a review would do that would be different from the numerous other studies of ITAR’s deleterious effects on the American space industry. Export control, it seems, is like the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it.

Rather than simply “review” a situation that virtually everyone agrees is unnecessarily harming the industry, the Obama Administration would be better served by taking immediate steps to reform it. The Bush Administration took a small step in this direction earlier this year with process improvements for export licensing. The new administration can go further—as it promises in the policy document—to improve licensing processes, such as finding ways to expedite license and agreement applications that involve NATO countries and other key allies. Since the addition of space hardware to the Munitions List was performed by an act of Congress, the Obama Administration should also ask Congress to at least partially undo the damage, perhaps by approving a process to remove from the list those items that are already available by suppliers in other nations.

An effective, open space council

As part of his August space policy, Obama proposed re-creating the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC), which last existed in the administration of President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s as the National Space Council. “It will oversee and coordinate civilian, military, commercial and national security space activities,” the policy document reads. “It will solicit public participation, engage the international community, and work toward a 21st century vision of space that constantly pushes the envelope on new technologies as it pursues a balanced national portfolio that expands our reach into the heavens and improves life here on Earth.”

Just how effective the NASC would be is a matter for debate. Past incarnations of the council have been of limited use, and are effective only if they have the ear of the White House and the power to influence policy (see “A new space council?”, The Space Review, June 21, 2004). That the new administration is proposing it, though, holds out the hope that they would be willing to given them some amount of power and influence to coordinate policy (see “Senator Obama and re-establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Council”, The Space Review, August 11, 2008.)

If the NASC does have that power, it will also need to be inclusive. While the policy statement suggests that the council will reach out to the public and to international partners, it will also need to be closely tied to industry and academia. While past councils have included members from key federal agencies, the new NASC should also consider adding one or more representatives, at least on an associate basis, from outside the government. There are no shortage of potential candidates, from leaders of industry associations like the Satellite Industry Association or Aerospace Industries Association to advisory groups like the Space Studies Board or the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee to even advocacy groups like The Planetary Society and the National Space Society.

Rather than simply “review” an export control situation that virtually everyone agrees is unnecessarily harming the industry, the Obama Administration would be better served by taking immediate steps to reform it.

While these officials may not have the same level of authority as representatives of federal agencies, their presence on the NASC can ensure the broader space community that their voices will be heard as the council shapes the new administration’s space policy. We’ve already seen some concern from the entrepreneurial NewSpace industry last week when it was rumored that Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and, at least previously, an advocate for far stricter regulations for commercial human spacecraft, was a candidate to be named Secretary of Transportation (see “Will Oberstar kill the NewSpace industry?”, The Space Review, this issue.) While Oberstar is one of many rumored candidates for the job, and has already said it was unlikely he would accept it, the mere suggestion led some in the industry to worry that Obama was not serious about supporting the commercial space industry, as he said in his policy statement.

A reconstituted NASC also needs to be as open as possible, so that the industry, public, and international partners can all better understand what direction national space policy is going and how they can be involved. Openness and transparency has been a hallmark of Obama’s overall policy proposals, and space is no exception: his space policy states that he “will engage our public servants in two-way dialogs with the public to discuss the national agenda for space, to show how their tax dollars are being used, and to solicit feedback how to better address the needs of the nation.” While it may be impractical for the council to do everything in the public eye, it needs to be far more open than its predecessors, providing updates on recent activities, future plans, and outreach to the space community and broader public.

There are a lot more policy issues that the new administration needs to consider, from procurement and financial management reforms for civil and especially military space (see “The Flying Spaghetti Monster: The American military space program in perpetual crisis”, The Space Review, this issue) to new incentives to support commercial space as the economy slides into recession. The list above, though, is more than enough for the president-elect and his transition team to consider over the next few months as they prepare to take the reins of power and deal with the many challenges that government and commercial space efforts face in the next four years.