As always (or at least recently), I must preface my commentary by noting that I think that the Obama administration is a national catastrophe on almost every possible level. I greatly fear the damage that it will continue to do to the country if it maintains its present foreign and domestic policy courses. Having said that, I have been profoundly annoyed for the past few months by the need to defend its manned spaceflight policy, which is one of the few things that it’s gotten at least partly right. Because I have done so, from a dispassionate and informed analysis of the policy itself (as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to anything emanating from this White House), I have been accused by the ignorant of being an Obamaphile and worse (if there is such a thing).
This is what I wrote in April, in my ongoing quixotic campaign to persuade conservatives and Republicans that Obama’s space policy actually is a huge improvement over the Bush policy:
Many don’t trust President Obama to execute this policy along these lines. Neither do I, necessarily. But I’d rather have good policy poorly executed than poor policy well executed. The execution can always be improved later. Do I believe that Obama really cares as much about human spaceflight as he said in his speech at the Cape? No, and I think that’s a good thing. I think he sees NASA as a problem he inherited from George W. Bush, and in that, he is right for once. He assigned to the problem people who do care about getting humans into space and, like Bush, he now wants to move on to other matters. Really, we should fear the day he gets interested in spaceflight; that will be the day that private enterprise is no longer trusted to conduct it. Let’s hope that day never comes. In the meantime, remember that when government does the right thing, it doesn’t matter whether it’s done for the wrong reason. Whatever the motivations behind it, this is a much more visionary space policy than we’ve ever had before.
The administration hasn’t made it easy for me; I feel as though I and a few other brave souls have had to do the heavy lifting. NASA’s public-relations efforts aren’t good in the best of times, and these are a long way from that. The rollout of the new policy in February was a self-admitted disaster (well, OK, he may not have used that word, but they clearly recognize that it was deficient). And almost half a year later, they still can’t get it right.
Moreover, in the latest news, the president seems to be doing everything possible to prove me correct. As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says:
[Obama] wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with predominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.
But wait! There’s more. Paul Mirengoff writes:
Exploring space didn’t even make the top three things Obama wants Bolden to accomplish. The other two are “re-inspire children to want to get into science and math” and “expand our international relationships.”
This is more evidence, if any were needed, of Obama’s lack of interest in American achievement or, indeed, American greatness. He seems to believe we’ve achieved enough (or perhaps too much) and that the trick now is to make nations that have achieved little for centuries feel like we couldn’t have done it without them (in the video, Bolden goes on to talk about how much NASA owes the Russians and the Japanese).
Just so. Set aside the issue of whether or not kids really study their math and science because they want to be NASA astronauts (if so, it’s as much of a fraud now as it was in the sixties — you have a better chance of getting into the NBA than being a NASA astronaut). Leave alone the notion of whether or not the Islamic world is really suffering from a shortage of self-esteem (I’m dubious, based on the available evidence) and that it is NASA’s responsibility to repair the lack. Ignore the conventional wisdom that we can’t afford to open up space on our own, and must have “international cooperation” (I think that what we really need is international competition — competition, not a monolithic transnational socialist enterprise, is how one drives great achievements and cost reduction).
The fact remains that the Constellation program was a slow-motion fiscal train wreck that, even if successful by its own criteria, would have been a dead end for American manned space exploration, as Apollo was. It would have cost tens of billions and taken years to simply replicate our capabilities of the sixties to get to earth orbit, and if the hardware required to get NASA astronauts back to the moon had ever started to be developed (some time in the next decade), it would have cost billions per astronaut ticket. Even if we could afford the development costs in the current fiscal environment, the operating costs would have resulted in its shut down, just as occurred with Apollo and for exactly the same reasons, because it was “Apollo on steroids.” That’s not my characterization — it’s former administrator Mike Griffin’s, its author. It could not continue, and had to be radically altered, as the Augustine panel pointed out last fall. Unfortunately, the policy debate has been abysmal, as Augustine panel member Jeff Greason continually and rightfully bemoans, mostly driven by considerations of pork, a continued worship of the “Apollo cargo cult,” and antipathy to anything Obama.
As I noted above, we need to have a policy discussion based on the policy itself and its features and bugs, rather than its ostensible author (a form of the ad hominem fallacy). And such a discussion should start with a discussion of what our goals for American human spaceflight are. Do we want the continuation of the state-centralized program that we inherited from the Cold War, with a few astronauts going to space at a cost of billions each, or do we want a space program with traditional American values, in which (and for which Bolden has vocally yearned in the past few months) hundreds and thousands are leaving the planet, for their own purposes and dreams, at a cost affordable to them? Should we continue to take the failed collective approach or the individualistic one?
It is ironic that such a radical change came in this administration, which is collectivist in all else, but it will only be around for two and a half years(with any luck). Arguments about schedules and destinations can, and no doubt will, continue unabated, but if the new policy does nothing else, it at least moved the rotting carcass of Ares out of the road forward, which was a necessary if not sufficient condition to advancing on any front. Let’s just hope that Obama doesn’t realize what he’s done, or actually get interested in it.