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The Latest Conservative Commentary Misfire on Space Policy

I don’t know what it is that makes so many supposed conservatives insist on being ignorant about space policy, but it’s even more annoying when they share their lack of knowledge with the rest of us. The latest example is over at The American Spectator, titled “America Aced In Space.” The author is a “Hal G.P. Colebatch,” an Aussie lawyer with whom I had not previously been familiar (and thus, by whom, not been previously dismayed).

With the subtitle “China and Russia have space programs. We once had one too,” it seems to have been written in an alternate universe, in which there are no American launch systems, or permanently inhabited American segment on a space station. Any time you see the words “Muslim outreach” in commentary or comment about American space policy, you can count on the author being monumentally ignorant of what is actually happening in American space policy, but this piece really deserves some kind of prize. Or at least a good old-fashioned fisking. Let us commence.

It starts off with the obligatory throat clearing, that Barack Obama is the cause of all the nation’s woes.

The Obama administration has proved its talent for inflicting both short and long-term wounds on America’s strength.

One, relatively little noted but perhaps the most serious and long-term of all in its consequences, has been the damage done to the U.S. space program, as China’s and, despite its new economic problems, Russia’s programs press steadily on.

The recent landing of an instrument package on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was not an American but a European feat — the sort of thing America used to excel in.

Let’s start right there. Yes, NASA, which is part of the administration, did indeed decline to do a comet mission. In the 1990s. That ESA mission departed from earth ten years ago, in 2004. So evil was Barack Obama, and so eager was he to make the U.S. a second-rate space power, that he hopped in his time machine and made sure that there was no NASA funding for that flight, other than instruments that they provided. Not to mention, of course, that the U.S. is going to do a close-up investigation of Pluto this summer.

Where America alone has been able to land men on the Moon, and a few years ago led the world with the Space Shuttle, the first spaceship, it now depends on Russian rockets to get personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.

The American space program has become hostage to an increasingly surly and unfriendly Russia, whose commitment to supply and service the ISS only lasts to 2016, after which it will have the U.S. over a barrel.

OK, first of all, this is simply wrong. The Moscow Times itself reported, only six weeks ago, that “officials at all levels have persistently stated that Roscosmos will honor its commitments to the ISS until 2020.”

Moreover, he made a severe sin of omission. He implies that our current dependence on Russia is the administration’s fault, when in fact it is a result of policy decisions made over the past quarter century, under Democrat and Republican presidents alike. Beyond that, he fails to note that the reason that Russia continues to have us “over a barrel” is the persistent refusal of Congress, on a bipartisan basis, to adequately fund the Commercial Crew Program, always giving the administration less funding than requested for it. The original goal was to be launching crew on American rockets next year, but the chronic underfunding from the Hill, including the budget just passed in the last month by a Republican House, has now slipped that date (officially, anyway) to 2017, if not later.

The nonsense continues:

The disastrous crash of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spacecraft, on which many hopes rode as the start of something great, has at the very least set back private commercial spaceflight for years and perhaps permanently. The seriousness of this does not seem to be fully appreciated within the political process. Perhaps the most optimistic thing to be said about it is that Anglo-American technology has historically shown great ability to recover from disasters (the Titanic had a near-identical sister-ship which, with improvements, successfully plied its trade for many years).

The Virgin Galactic “crash” hasn’t set commercial spaceflight back at all, let alone for years. The notion that it could do so “permanently” is kind of insane, and would be unprecedented in the history of transportation technology. XCOR Aerospace continues to build the Lynx in Mojave, Blue Origin continues to develop their own vehicles and, in conjunction with United Launch Alliance (ULA), huge engines. SpaceX is scheduled to do a cargo flight to ISS this month (in which they may demonstrate the ability to recover an intact first stage). Along with SpaceX, Boeing continues to hit milestones for their commercial crew capsules.

…today the U.S. has no reliable launch vehicles of its own, and no hard program in place.

Really? ULA, with its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, and SpaceX with its Falcon 9, none of which have had a primary mission failure in many years, will be very surprised to hear that.

It gave up the ability to get to the Moon long ago, though advances in computers and other areas should have made this easier and safer than in the ’60s and ’70s.

They have, though because NASA (or rather, Congress) insists on doing it the same way we did it in the sixties, with giant unaffordable rockets, we can’t take advantage of those advances.

Since the last shuttle was retired in 2011, the U.S. has been dependent on Russian rockets and, most crucially, plans to replace the shuttle, such as the Constellation, appear to have been shelved. President Obama’s lack of interest in this — as in preserving other aspects of U.S. — strength, is almost palpable. The one gleam of hope in the American sky is that NASA recently announced the award of contracts to Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Space-X to build a seven-person launch vehicle by 2017.

Constellation was not a “plan to replace the shuttle.” It was a fatally flawed plan to return to the moon. It was not an “aspect of U.S. strength,” but a bloated jobs program, doomed to fail. And that “only gleam of hope” is a vast mischaracterization of the Commercial Crew Program, if that’s what he is attempting to describe.

First, Commercial Crew is an Obama initiative. Second, it is not to “build a seven-person launch vehicle.” It is a program to develop two separate seven-person capsules, one by Boeing, and the other by SpaceX (the latter is well along), to be launched on existing launch vehicles (the Atlas V and Falcon 9-R, respectively). Lockheed Martin has nothing to do with either of them, though they are the prime contractor for NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which is far behind schedule, and over weight and budget, despite its overhyped flight test in early December. So once again, he gets almost everything wrong.

Now, on to the fear mongering vis a vis China:

NASA has been talking big about going to Mars but there is little or nothing of a hard timetable, and the “space medicine” problems of prolonged exposure to cosmic rays and muscle-deterioration due to prolonged low gravity will have to be solved by all countries with space ambitions.

But NASA’s abilities today are a long way from even the moon, and China has plainly given itself a goal of hegemony in space as a high national priority, unhindered by considerations of budget or politics.

Really? “Unhindered by considerations of budget or politics”? There’s no evidence that they have an unconstrained budget. And they continue to use old expendable technology based on Russian heritage, which is no more of a sustainable way to get to the moon and Mars than Apollo was.

Of course, here comes the old standard, the only thing that most conservatives (including, sadly, Rush Limbaugh) seem to “know” about Obama’s space policy (which hasn’t made it any easier for me to explain it):

Under pressure from President Obama, the NASA director promised to pursue Muslim outreach, a policy that has nothing whatsoever to do with the goals for which NASA was established, and is indeed so far removed from them that it is again possible to see this as a policy of deliberate destruction of the agency and part of an overarching strategy of reducing American power.

Well, it might be that, if the NASA “director” (hint: the job title is “administrator”) had done a single thing to do so, other than have an idiotic interview on Al Jazeera. There is nothing in the NASA budget for this activity, and there has been no mention of it since that stupid interview. Yet it’s always the first (and often only) thing that some conservatives have to say when engaged in a discussion about U.S. space policy — which indicates to me that those conservatives are just as unserious about space policy as everyone else.

Moving on, this is amusing, a couple grafs later:

NASA’s recently announced plans to build a seven-person launch vehicle by 2017 hardly mean a return to the moon, or to Mars, and China, has plainly given a goal of hegemony in space a high national priority, unhindered by considerations of budget or politics. [Emphasis added]

Look familiar? Scroll up a bit. OK, so The American Spectator not only doesn’t have a fact checker, it doesn’t even have an editor.

The piece goes on to laud the Chinese space industry and continue to misrepresent and denigrate our own:

Without a reliable launch vehicle, independent access to space is not possible. Giving up its autonomy in space has major implications for the national security of the U.S. and its allies.

We have not “given up our autonomy in space,” and (as already noted) we have not one, not two, but three reliable launch vehicles. They just happen to not be operated by the government, which apparently dismays big-government “conservatives” like Mr. Colebatch. China, on the other hand, has the Long March series which, despite the author’s lauding of it, caused the biggest launch disaster in space history. We’ll probably never know how many uninvolved Chinese villagers were injured or killed.

In the Bush administration, many of us used to mock the left in their BDS — Bush Derangement Syndrome — in which all ills of the world could be laid at the feet of the president. At least when it comes to space policy, too many conservatives suffer from ODS, which is too bad, because there are serious problems with our space policy. But they have nothing to do with who is president, and everything to do with anachronistic and, frankly, unconservative views of what we should be doing in space, based on Cold War events of half a century ago. Willingly publishing the kind of ignorance above once again demonstrates the unseriousness of many conservatives about what should be a serious topic, and just makes it that much harder to have an intelligent discussion. And reading such a terrible piece makes me question everything else that The American Spectator publishes. Its editors should be ashamed.