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New Space Policy Questions and Advice for Mitt

In the interest of continuing to improve him as a candidate should he get the nomination.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

January 28, 2012 - 3:51 pm

Interestingly, space policy has been much more discussed in this primary campaign than any other in recent history, largely because it is a topic about which one of the candidates, Newt Gingrich, is unusually enthusiastic and conversant. With the focus on Tuesday’s primary in Florida, a swing state in which space is an important issue to many on the Space Coast, it seems to have reached a peak in the last few days, though after Tuesday’s vote it is likely to recede into the background, with few remaining debates ahead, and none focusing on a space state.

On Wednesday, Gingrich gave an aspirational speech in Cocoa Beach laying out his vision for America in space, of a ten-billion-dollar prize for the first human on Mars, a lunar base by the end of his second term, and eventually a settlement of several thousand that might become a new U. S. state. As I noted here on Friday, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds to many, and Ken Chang at the New York Times wrote a similar story with the theme on Saturday that the primary barrier was politics, not technology or cost.

Nonetheless, Mitt Romney chose to ridicule it, continuing to come off (as he did in December) as a soulless, visionless technocrat. The last time he did this, I had some serious space policy questions for his campaign, to which he has (unsurprisingly) never responded:

In 2008, you said that you supported President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, a fundamental part of which was a manned lunar base. Now you criticize Newt Gingrich for the same thing, and imply that it is a frivolity. What happened in the interim to make you change your opinion?

…What would a Romney space policy look like? Given that you’ve elevated the topic in the campaign, I think that those of us to whom space is important deserve to know.

Well, in the debate on Thursday night, he continued to mock Gingrich’s expansive vision, demonstrating his penchant for “liking to be able to fire people”:

If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, “You’re fired.”

But he also started to answer the last question, saying that he didn’t yet have a space policy, but that he was going to get one:

To define the mission for our space program, I’d like to bring in the — the top professors that relate to space areas and physics, the top people from industry.

Got that? Top. Men.

Well, true to his word, on Friday, prior to giving a bland and vague space policy speech at a Space Coast company, Governor Romney revealed a letter of endorsement from several notable space experts. The policy proposed is (like his speech) vague and anodyne, and one which, it could be argued, the current one under Obama satisfies. The group is led by Scott Pace, head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University (and long-time friend and colleague of mine at Rockwell International back in the eighties). Others on the list are Mark Albrecht, head of the National Space Council under George Herbert Walker Bush; Mike Griffin, previous NASA administrator; Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon (almost forty years ago); and others. Interestingly, Dr. Pace is described as a “former Assistant Director for Space and Aeronautics, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.” For some reason, no mention is made of the fact that his most recent prior job was associate NASA administrator under Griffin. Several of the group, including Griffin and Pace, but particularly Cernan, have been quite vociferous in their opposition to the Obama space plan. Despite Romney’s claim to desire a greater integration of commercial companies into space endeavors, only one of his advisers (Eric Anderson of Space Adventures, and chairman of the board of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation) has any commercial space experience.

So, in light of this new information, and in the interest of continuing to improve him as a candidate should he get the nomination, I think it’s time for a new round of questions that reporters should be asking Governor Romney.

As noted above, four years ago you claimed to support the Bush space plan, which included a lunar base by 2020. Why is that now not an appropriate goal?

You have said that you think that the purpose of spaceflight is the following: “the ‘existential’ objective of understanding the universe and its effects on the Earth, such as climate or the possibility of a ‘catastrophic event’; commercial; the health and well-being of citizens; and defense.” Nothing on that list intrinsically requires having people go into space, and we already have a space budget for defense (about the size of NASA’s total budget) at the Department of Defense. Do you disagree with Dwight Eisenhower’s goal of NASA as a separate civilian agency? Do you disagree with John Marburger, George W. Bush’s science adviser, and instead believe that our species will remained confined to a single planet for the foreseeable future, and that we should devote no resources to opening up the rest of the solar system to economic development and settlement?

You claim to want to increase the efficiency with which commercial entities can be involved with the nation’s space activities, yet only one of your advisers has any experience with commercial space. How are you going to address this imbalance, which seems to raise the issue of the degree of your devotion to this?

You have as one of your policy advisers Mike Griffin, who was in charge of that lunar plan at the time you endorsed it. But it was on track to cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and it wasn’t for a “colony” on the moon — it was just for a small base, to be visited a couple times a year, at a cost of many billions per trip, making it an even bigger waste of money. So why on Friday did you hire someone who had been doing (and was fired for) something that you said was a firing offense on Thursday night?

Under Dr. Griffin’s NASA, he threw away numerous studies that the previous administrator had commissioned from industry to determine the best path forward, none of which recommended that NASA build an all-new rocket, and substituted his own plan while hiding for years the technical appendices needed to justify his decision (which when finally revealed, failed to do so). Associate administrator Scott Horowitz passed back and forth through a revolving door between the agency and an executive position at ATK, manufacturer of the solid rocker boosters that would power the first stage of Griffin’s (and Horowitz’s) giant rocket. Somehow, the company also at this time received sole-source no-bid cost-plus NASA contracts worth billions, dwarfing Solyndra and other DoE disasters in terms of waste of taxpayer funds. You have been decrying “crony capitalism,” so how do you justify being advised by an apparent practitioner of it? If you become president, will he become NASA administrator again? The voters, in Florida and elsewhere, deserve to know.

In 2009, industry veteran Norm Augustine’s panel investigated the policy issues of spaceflight quite thoroughly, and determined that Dr. Griffin’s plans were far over cost estimates and behind schedule, and slipping more than a year per year, wasting billions on an unneeded new rocket and an overpriced delayed space telescope, while starving of funds the vital technologies needed to reduce the cost of space transportation and operations. Are you aware of the Augustine report? Given that we already have a useful road map for opening up the solar system, why would you want to waste more time and money putting together yet another space-policy study that will be ignored because its results don’t comport with the need to distribute pork in the appropriate places? Have you considered adding Mr. Augustine, or one of his panelists, such as Jeff Greason (which would also make you look more sincere about interest in commercial space), to your group of space advisers, and mightn’t it be useful to at least read the report summary, to give yourself a better grasp of the issues, rather than just relying on “advisers”?

Finally, do you have any sense of how politically tone deaf it is to mock and denigrate aspirational visions for space in Florida (or anywhere)? Don’t you realize that it makes you come off as a hollow, soul-impoverished bean counter? Don’t you care?

There is no one more fervent than me in their desire to see that Barack Obama is a one-term president, but your space policy behavior, so far, is the first time I’ve seen any reason to give him another term.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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