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.