The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
Obama at KSC
Criticism of the Obama Administration’s policies as “socialist” don’t match with what it has proposed to do with NASA. (credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA)

(Anti-)socialism in space


Bookmark and Share

In one of the more bizarre aspects of an already confusing political season, many conservatives have assailed the Obama administration for allegedly dragging the United States into a radical “socialism.” These attackers have obviously not examined the president’s proposed space policy.

The ideological contradictions are amusing. Some politicians who decry federal efforts to ensure the safety of workers in mines and other workplaces have been uncompromising in their belief that only the government and not private enterprise can guarantee worker—astronaut—safety in space.

Realizing how internationally competitive space has become, the Obama Administration is trying to make NASA more flexible and innovative by proposing the most market-oriented space policy in decades. The plans to revamp the human space program have received the most media and political attention. Less reported but as significant are efforts to advance commercial development, to encourage aerospace exports by significantly streamlining the bureaucratic International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) process, and to revamp the NASA Advisory Council to promote a more entrepreneurial perspective.

The most radical component of the administration’s proposals shifts from the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (proclaimed by NASA as “Apollo on steroids”) to exploring beyond the Earth and Moon, and from Russian and future NASA rockets to commercial providers to send astronauts into space. Underfunded by the Bush Administration from its start, the VSE has experienced the delays and increased costs normal in a high technology program. The Augustine Committee in 2009 stated the obvious: at present funding levels VSE will not meet its objectives. This is why American astronauts’ dependence on Russian transportation will increase after the space shuttle is retired early next year, a decision made in 2004.

Possibly more important than changing the direction of human exploration is the renewed emphasis on technology development to reduce the cost of operating in space. This is seed corn whose harvest will take years but will reap significant benefits in easing the challenges of exploring and exploiting that hostile environment. Lowering the cost of space operations will expand opportunities for new as well as current space users. This could be the most significant space legacy of the Obama Administration.

The major opposition to these proposals has come from senators and representatives whose districts and states would lose jobs. The space industry and astronaut community have been split. The ideological contradictions are amusing. Some politicians who decry federal efforts to ensure the safety of workers in mines and other workplaces have been uncompromising in their belief that only the government and not private enterprise can guarantee worker—astronaut—safety in space. Proponents of limited government are trying to halt programs that would encourage commercial space development.

The arguments are partially crouched in terms of job losses. Other arguments concern national prestige and wasting the money already spent on VSE. The logic for the last is worrying: If a policy is not succeeding, why continue spending money on it?

While still based on the VSE concepts, the Senate proposal does lay the foundations for a future healthy, internationally competitive and inspirational American space industry.

The new proposals for exploration are more exciting and stimulating than returning to the Moon. As well as exciting startups and smaller players, the new plans have produced ideas like Lockheed Martin’s proposed human asteroid mission in 2016, nearly a decade before the Obama plan. Is 2016 too early? Possibly, but given the resources, it can be done.

There are shortcomings in the Obama proposals. The technology development plans lack a commitment to reducing the cost of reaching orbit, still about $10,000 a pound. NASA certainly needs to consider what skills it needs to keep. Politically, the administration’s process of consulting and negotiating with key stakeholders was inadequate.

One consequence is congressional scaling back of the ambitious NASA plans. While the debate is not yet settled, it appears the House of Representatives will accept something like the Senate version of NASA’s budget. While still based on the VSE concepts, the Senate proposal does lay the foundations for a future healthy, internationally competitive and inspirational American space industry.

The debate about space policy, and overall national policy, will continue, and so will the contradictions. For example, potential Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has criticized the administration policies in general, including in a book earlier this year titled To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine. Yet Gingrich, along with another former Republican congressman, Robert Walker, endorsed the administration’s space agenda in an op-ed in the Washington Times in February, saying it “deserves strong approval from Republicans.”

Are the Obama administration’s plans for NASA radical? Definitely yes. Are they exciting? Definitely yes. Are they “socialist?” Definitely no.


Home