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The GOP’s Non-Existent Space Policy

When innocuous platitudes substitute for serious proposals to reform NASA and jump start private space ventures.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

August 31, 2012 - 12:00 am

In light of the recent loss of our nation’s greatest space hero, I decided to take a gander at the Republican Party platform to see what they had to say about space and NASA. Here it is:

America’s Future in Space: Continuing this Quest

The exploration of space has been a key part of U.S. global leadership and has supported innovation and ownership of technology. Over the last half century, in partnership with our aerospace industry, the work of NASA has helped define and strengthen our nation’s technological prowess. From building the world’s most powerful rockets to landing men on the Moon, sending robotic spacecraft throughout our solar system and beyond, building the International Space Station, and launching space-based telescopes that allow scientists to better understand our universe, NASA science and engineering have produced spectacular results. The technologies that emerged from those programs propelled our aerospace industrial base and directly benefit our national security, safety, economy, and quality of life. Through its achievements, NASA has inspired generations of Americans to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, leading to careers that drive our country’s technological and economic engines.

Today, America’s leadership in space is challenged by countries eager to emulate — and surpass — NASA’s accomplishments. To preserve our national security interests and foster innovation and competitiveness, we must sustain our preeminence in space, launching more science missions, guaranteeing unfettered access, and maintaining a source of high-value American jobs.

So there’s the preamble. Next come the specific policy proposals, right?

Well, one would think so, but one would think so in vain. That’s it. That’s the sum total of what the GOP platform says about space.

This was clearly written by someone who has given very little thought to space policy, probably some staffer who was told “Hey, we need to say something about space. We know that Mitt doesn’t give a rat’s patoot about it, but we have to say something.”

So he (or she) did a little research and came up with this “motherhood” statement (as in space is good, motherhood is wonderful). Note all the conventional and unexamined assumptions:

Space is about exploration. Check.
Space is about science. Check.
NASA is our space “program.” Check.
NASA spending advances our industrial base. Check.
NASA promotes STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Check.
Our preeminence in space is key to our national security interests. Check.

What isn’t mentioned? Well, for one thing, the platform is bereft of the slightest mention of military space, when it (not NASA) is in fact key to our national security, given what a force multiplier things like GPS, communications satellites, surveillance systems, etc. can be. Similarly, there is no mention whatsoever of all of the private space activity, some of which is being spurred by the (uncharacteristic) policy of the current administration to competitively procure services from that sector. Will a Romney administration and Republican Congress continue this? One would never guess it from the platform wording.

There is no discussion, or even consideration, of space as a new venue for human activity, whether economic (e.g., mining) or actual settlement, despite the fact that a number of companies have been formed recently for the former, and part of their business plans are to enable the latter.

The Space Frontier Foundation is similarly unimpressed:

NASA seems to be one Big Government program many Republicans love. The GOP platform criticizes the federal government as “bloated, antiquated and unresponsive to taxpayers” but has nothing but hackneyed praise for NASA, and doesn’t even mention the increasing role of the private sector. The authors of this platform must imagine they still live in the Cold War of the 1960s, when only governments launched payloads and people into space.

The platform committee declares it “isn’t enough to merely downsize government, having a smaller version of the same failed systems,” that we need to “do things in a dramatically different way” — yet says nothing about the need to reform NASA or to streamline regulation of the emerging NewSpace sector. Republicans call themselves the Great Opportunity Party. Yet their Platform presumes “space” is a (government) program, instead of a frontier to be opened to the American people – the greatest “opportunity” since the West was settled.

In the last eight years, the private space industry has taken off — literally. Companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada are vying to take crew and cargo to the International Space Station. Others are testing vehicles for suborbital space tourism, or planning orbiting space facilities and asteroid mining. Many inside NASA recognize that the agency should be encouraging these NewSpace companies by buying their services, rather than competing with them, so NASA can focus on true exploration–like Lewis and Clark. NASA needs the kind of overhaul Gov. Romney has brought to other dysfunctional organizations if it is to pass his test for all government programs: is it worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? Only when NASA ceases to be a white-collar jobs program and starts nurturing entrepreneurs in new industries will the answer be yes.

A few months ago, when he was using the issue to bash Newt Gingrich for his vision with respect to the next frontier, I had some questions for Mitt Romney (which he has never thought worth answering). Presuming that the Republican platform plank on space will be adopted as his own, I now have some new ones.

1. As president, will you aggressively support NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to minimize the time during which we are reliant on Putin’s Russia to get our astronauts to the space station?

2. Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin is supposedly on your team of advisers for space policy. During the debates, you said that if anyone proposed building a lunar base, you would “fire them.” Griffin’s policy and plans were to do exactly that. When are you going to fire him?

3. Have you or your campaign staff read the Augustine Committee report from 2009, which explains why the Mike Griffin approach is unaffordable and unsustainable? Are you aware that, despite this, Congress has chosen to continue it under a different name, on a bipartisan basis, wasting billions of dollars of taxpayer money on rockets that NASA doesn’t need for space exploration just to maintain jobs in their states and districts?

4. Do you believe that NASA, as it evolved during the Cold War and as currently constituted, is the best federal instrument to advance our civil space goals, or do you think that, half a century after the first American in space, it’s past time for a major overhaul of federal space policy?

5. At Bain Capital, you were a champion of Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction,” a redeployment of resources from value-subtracting activities to value-adding ones. Have you considered the degree to which our space policy is ripe for such an approach, particularly given the nation’s fiscal straits?

Finally, do you believe, as implied by the platform, that the the purpose of space activities is for “exploration,” or do you think that exploration is merely a means to an end — space development? As a bonus question, have you considered the possibility that, as Utah was for your ancestors, space could ultimately be a new frontier offering religious and other freedom, and a last resort should the Founders’ noble experiment fail here on earth?

Perhaps you should.

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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