The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NewSpace panel
A panel of space policy experts discusses the future of NASA in the next presidential administration during the NewSpace 2007 conference on July 20. From left: Courtney Stadd, Lori Garver, Jim Muncy, and Alan Ladwig. (credit: J. Foust)

NASA and the next administration

It has long been a complaint of space advocates that presidential candidates spend little or no time discussing their space policy positions—if, in fact, they have bothered to develop any positions on the subject. Space is near the bottom of the list of topics of interest to the electorate in general, and one that is not a swing issue for all but a small handful of voters. It is also rarely a partisan issue, making it difficult for space policy to become more ammunition in the continuous battles between Republicans and Democrats. Thus, even in the current campaign—which is shaping up to be the longest and perhaps the most contentious in US history—there’s scant attention paid to space.

That’s not to say, though, that space policy has been completely ignored. Earlier this month, in an interview with a science blogger, Democratic candidate John Edwards said that he was “a strong supporter of our space program.” However, he called for a “balanced” program, adding, “We need to support solar system exploration as an important goal for our human and robotic programs, but only as one goal among several”—language that suggests that he would not necessarily support the Vision for Space Exploration as strongly as the current administration. Last week, in a conference call with reporters and bloggers, Republican candidate Mike Huckabee was asked about his support for human exploration of Mars, and, while supportive of space exploration in general, refused to absolutely commit to such a mission, “because I can just see the headline now, ‘Huckabee Proposes Mars Mission’.” Such concerns about media embarrassment, though, didn’t stop him from joking in the conference call: “Let me begin by saying that there are several people I’d like to send to Mars, so if we could get a vessel on that way, I’d like to put together a passenger list. Only thing is, I probably would only provide enough fuel to get them there, I’m not sure we’d get them back.”

Stadd believes that the next administration will face “very fundamental transportation problems yet to be resolved,” including the shuttle-CEV gap.

Given the limited public statements like these, what can the space industry and its advocates expect from the next occupant of the White House? That was the subject of a panel discussion last Friday at the NewSpace 2007 conference in Arlington, Virginia. Given the lack of concrete details about the space policy positions of many candidates, not to mention the uncertainty of which candidate will win the 2008 election, definitive statements are hard to come by. Instead, said Jim Muncy, president of PoliSpace and moderator of the panel, the goal was to examine the “art of the possible”: “What could a new president do? What could she say or he do to take up the good things that were accomplished over the last eight years and move them forward, or correct mistakes that were made, or, if not lost forever, pursue opportunities that have laid fallow?”

Grading the current administration

Answering those questions requires an assessment of the accomplishments to date of the Bush Administration in the space arena: what are the good things to continue and what are the mistakes that need to be corrected? Courtney Stadd, who served on the NASA transition team at the beginning of the current administration, said that the administration had done a service by developing the Vision for Space Exploration, which “addressed a lot of the pent-up anxiety a lot of us had about the need for presidential leadership.” However, he did say that the next administration will face “very fundamental transportation problems yet to be resolved,” most notably the so-called “gap” between the retirement of the shuttle in 2010 and the introduction of the Orion spacecraft, now planned for 2015. Stadd declined to give the administration a letter grade for its space policy performance, but that it had, “at best, a mixed record” on space issues.

Lori Garver, a former associate administrator for policy and plans at NASA during the Clinton Administration, was less reticent to assign the current administration a letter grade on space policy, giving the White House a C-. “Leaving low Earth orbit behind for the government to move on in human exploration is the high water mark of what happened in the last six and a half years,” she said, adding that the administration also corrected other problems that the agency had at the beginning of its term. However, she criticized the administration for how it chose to carry out the Vision. “It’s obviously been a case of implementation, the Bush Administration not putting forth budgets that they said they would. Had they done that, we wouldn’t have had these dramatic cuts [in science programs] which have then caused a little more consternation on the Hill.”

Alan Ladwig, Garver’s predecessor at NASA, gave the administration a similar grade. “There’s some stability coming with human spaceflight now, with the space station. Certainly the budget’s been going in the right direction,” he said. “I think they’ve done a bad job with earth science by ignoring it, and I think what’s been done to aeronautics is almost criminal.”

“Look at some of the things the man has said on the record in the Washington Post about humans going out and settling space and why we’re going,” Garver said about Griffin. “I don’t know that you’re going to get another administrator any time soon with that kind of vision.”

Muncy said that the administration deserved credit for its push to complete the ISS and retire the shuttle. “Just on the grade of getting the shuttle through what it has to get through and then hopefully put to bed, I’m going to give this administration at least a B, if not an A-,” he said. The administration, he said, deserved an A- for the Vision for Space Exploration itself, but a D in how it implemented it, by pushing back some of the key decisions required for sending humans to the Moon beyond the end of the current administration. “I would like there to be a clear understanding, on the part of the Congress and the American people, that we are going to the Moon,” he said, through the development of multiple robotic missions to the Moon and focused R&D efforts that are lacking today.

Muncy also disagreed with Stadd about how critical the gap was to NASA and the nation. “I think we’ve focused way too much on the gap,” Muncy said. “It’s not going to be a gap of humans going into space and it’s not going to be a gap of Americans going into space. It’s going to be a gap of American government flagged spaceships going into space. I’m sorry, but that’s not as strategic a concern for me as it is to other people.”

Griffin’s future

One reason for Muncy’s low grade for the administration’s carrying out the Vision is that it appears that Griffin himself seems resigned to push back key decisions about the Vision’s future. Muncy cited a recent NASA Strategic Management Council meeting where Griffin said that the decision to go to the Moon will have to be left to a future administration and Congress. “That is a crying shame,” he said. “For him to now say two years later that it’s going to be up to the next administration and all we can do is set up the conditions to make a decision is unfortunate.”

Garver, though, defended Griffin for taking action to implement an architecture and for being forward-thinking. “Look at some of the things the man has said on the record in the Washington Post about humans going out and settling space and why we’re going,” she said. “I don’t know that you’re going to get another administrator any time soon with that kind of vision.”

That, though, raises the question of just how long Griffin can expect to remain as administrator once a new president is in the White House. Given NASA’s low priority, Griffin could be kept by a new administration for some time while they deal with other departments and agencies. “It will take about six to nine months until a new administration discovers NASA,” Stadd said.

“I’m not so sure it will this time,” Garver said. “Things are a lot more partisan over at NASA now, and you might have someone come in and be ready with an appointment” shortly after a new president takes office.

Changes big and small

What changes a new president might make at NASA are, at this point, little more than speculation. One issue that is likely to be considered, though, is the balance of funding between science and exploration programs. The scientific community has been complaining for some time about cutbacks in recent NASA budgets. Before the Vision, Muncy said, NASA put a lot of money into science because it lacked a definitive direction in human spaceflight. “I think the previous administrator, not really knowing anything about space or really caring about space, sort of said, ‘Well, science is something that everyone likes, so we’ll just throw money at science.’ That’s come back to bite this administration very badly.”

“A NASA that simply does space for us to watch is not going to be a huge priority,” Muncy said.

Ladwig noted that the space science community has traditionally done a better job promoting their programs than human spaceflight proponents. “The human spaceflight side has sat back for 20 years and insisted that a president stand up and give them a vision. The space science community was under no illusion that they needed that,” he said. “They kept marching ahead and offered a robust, exciting agenda that didn’t seem to need a president to stand up and say, ‘We’re going to do all these things.’”

That means that science programs might do better fiscally under a new president. “You can argue whether this administration has been truly anti-science or not. The fact is, perception is reality, and it’s been demonized as anti-science,” Stadd said. “An easy way to get brownie points is to jack up the science budget.”

There could be room, though, for more significant structural changes. Garver said it’s possible the next administration will create a cabinet-level Department of the Environment that would include the earth science parts of NASA. “I don’t see any future where that doesn’t happen,” she said.

Such a move could open the door for even bigger changes to NASA, how it is structured, and what it does that is perhaps as overarching in scope as the transformation of the former NACA into NASA nearly a half-century ago. “If you do not adjust and adapt to new realities, you’re going to quickly go out of business,” said Stadd, noting that former NASA administrator James Webb, shortly before his death in 1992, talked about razing the agency and then reinventing it. “I think we’re about 25 years due for that.”

Such a reinvention of NASA, while difficult, could be critical as pressures on discretionary spending rise in the years to come. “A NASA that simply does space for us to watch is not going to be a huge priority,” Muncy said. “A space agency that is working with the American people, that is reflecting the views of the American people and is engaging the American people, might actually have a chance of surviving that huge fiscal crisis that’s coming.”