The Magazine

Candidates in Orbit

The late, great U.S. space program.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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We’ve had some fun with space policy in the 2012 presidential race. Saturday Night Live, the Daily Show, candidate debates, and other forms of low comedy had us all laughing at Newt Gingrich’s proposal for moon statehood. Ron Paul said, “I think we should send some politicians up there.” So it would be a blue state, and there goes Republican control of the Senate. Mitt Romney said, “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.’ ” Ha, ha. A president, a Congress, and a number of wives have tried to fire Newt, and he’s still on the job.

Artist’s rendering of the SLS

Countdown to 2021: Artist’s rendering of the SLS

But fun with space policy is about all we’ve had. Space is not an issue in this election. There are good reasons it should be. NASA is cheap. Its budget is $17.7 billion, one-fourth the budget for the Department of Education, which ought to​—​considering the state of public schools, where none of the kids can do this math​—​give its money to NASA.

National prestige is important, even if our current president doesn’t know it. China is trying to become America without democracy while America is trying to become France without cheese calories.

We’ve gained technological advantages from our space program, and not just Tang and Teflon but satellite radio for listening to Howard Stern, GPS telling Mitt Romney how to get to Washington without going by way of the moon, the foam that protects skulls in football helmets and keeps my little linebacker from becoming any dumber than 8-year-olds already are, the cordless drill to facilitate household DIY projects, and the scratchproof sunglasses my wife wears to conceal eye-rolling at the way the bookshelves tilt. The hang glider, that California fool-killer, owes its “para-wing” to NASA research on returning payloads to Earth. Then there’s hazardous gas sensors, filtration devices for kidney dialysis, flame-resistant clothing for firemen, and the Hubble telescope. The Hubble’s imaging problems turned out to be the same problems doctors had looking for tumors in mammograms. Someone you love is alive today, not because of a NASA success, but because of a NASA failure​—​a design flaw in the Hubble telescope. 

Also, the first rule of tactics, military and diplomatic, is to hold the high ground. It gets no higher than outer space. And space keeps the politically powerful distracted with grand, visionary projects. Otherwise they’d be tempted to meddle in our personal affairs and might​—​who knows?​—​start subjecting us to full body searches at airports or telling us which health insurance policies to buy.

But the U.S. space program is short of machinery, muddled about goals, and low in morale. The space shuttle has been retired. Thousands of NASA employees and contractors lost their jobs. We have no way to get a man into space except by asking Vladimir Putin, “Mother Russia, May I?”

The Bush-era Constellation program, with its moon and Mars capabilities, was canceled. Neil Armstrong called the decision “devastating.” The Augustine Commission, an Obama administration panel of scientists, retired astronauts, and aerospace experts chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, judged Constellation to be hopelessly behind schedule, underfunded, and over budget. I’m glad they didn’t judge me.

The new Space Launch System or SLS, the heavy launch vehicle that will replace Constellation’s Ares I and Ares V rockets, won’t be ready for a manned flight until at least 2021. Where the SLS will go is, as it were, up in the air. Lunar orbit? Asteroid? Lagrange point? (A Lagrange point is the place between two gravitational bodies where an object is held stationary in perfect equilibrium.) What if Jack Kennedy had declared we were going to put a man on a Lagrange point by the end of the decade? The nation would have been inspired to watch ballet in a suburb of Chicago.

The surprise about the space policies of Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and (to the extent they have any) Rick Santorum and Ron Paul is how alike they are. Obama’s space policy doesn’t differ much from George W. Bush’s. There always was going to be a long gap between the end of the shuttle and the beginning of something new. Both presidents were stingy with cash and vague with objectives, though Bush’s vagueness was more stirring.

In one fundamental way, space policy alikeness goes back decades. NASA’s budget peaked in 1966 at about $32 billion in today’s dollars, which was, at that time, 4.4 percent of the federal budget. Funding has been essentially flat since George H.W. Bush took office and is, at this time, less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget. Despite the grief he’s gotten for the supposed cost of his Moon Homestead Act, even Newt Gingrich hasn’t suggested spending more on space. All five candidates expect the private sector to be buying a stairway to heaven.

Obama touts public-private space partnerships, use of commercial spacecraft to transport U.S. payloads, and buying government data from private satellites. “Hillary, click on Google Maps, Assad’s house, street view.”

Santorum, in a February op-ed, wrote about the “immediate, important, and realistic goals of the space program; encouraging partnerships between the space program and private business to grow the technology, engineering, and manufacturing sectors of our economy.”

Santorum isn’t far from Obama, who isn’t far from Newt, who called NASA “an absolute case study in why bureaucracy can’t innovate.” Newt would take 10 percent out of NASA’s budget every year and offer billions in prizes to private citizens who made space discoveries. It worked for Ferdinand and Isabella.

Ron Paul, as always, is more extreme. Even though congressional redistricting has moved his voters closer to the Johnson Space Center, when a delegation of businessmen came to talk about the economic benefits of space programs, Paul told them, “Space travel isn’t in the Constitution.” And neither is Texas, because the Spanish got there first.

Romney has said, “Our space program is an integral part of American exceptionalism.” But so is Nicki Minaj. Romney has promised to think about space, or, to put it in Romney-speak, “Before you make tough decisions, you start off by saying what’s the objective? And then you say what’s the data and see what information you have. And then you create hypotheses.” Whatever. Romney has assembled a panel of scientists, former astronauts, and aerospace experts. It’s different than, if not different from, the Augustine Commission.

I consulted some aerospace experts of my own. Most wished to remain anonymous, and, with the tenor of this election cycle, who can blame them? Also there’s a general feeling in the space community that partisan politics should end at the ionosphere, no matter what junk MSNBC is bouncing off communication satellites.

An acute young space policy analyst said of the Romney space panel, “I get the sense they won’t be proposing anything super-dramatic [surprise!] and will probably modify what’s in place and refocus a bit.”

He said Gingrich is “wildly enthusiastic about prizes, probably far beyond the point of reasonable applicability.” But he was critical of Gingrich’s moon base critics, saying they’ve been “throwing around this number of $500 billion or $700 billion, which is hugely, stupidly, wretchedly, violently wrong.” He estimated the actual cost to be “very, very roughly” in the “$30-$50 billion range, depending on how you count, what is included in development, and whether the cost estimator has a tendency to hook when golfing.” Even if the estimator is deep in the rough that’s 10 percent of an Obama Jobs Act.

The analyst continued, “Santorum’s space policy, as far as I can tell, is: ‘Newt is an idiot.’ I don’t think [Santorum’s] team actually has anybody on space policy, largely because space is pretty devoid of opportunities to talk about moral decay, birth control, and the war on Christmas.”

As for Obama, the analyst felt his record spoke for itself and referred me to the 2013 NASA budget. NASA’s total budget remains about the same as 2012 but with somewhat different allocations. Funding for aeronautics, space operations, and astrophysics is down slightly. Up slightly is funding for exploration, Earth science, and something called heliophysics (not a Solyndra boondoggle but R&D for an engine to be used on a solar probe). Space technology, the James Webb Space Telescope, and environmental compliance and restoration are up 21.8, 20, and 48.2 percent, respectively. Education and planetary science are respectively down 26.5 and 20.6 percent. The short version: more environmentalism and less learning about what it is.

The budget is not all bad. I sat in on a briefing by an officer from the part of the military that gathers satellite intelligence. The briefing was more or less classified (“Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Throat Only” or something). The officer said his people were pleased with their allocation, though he didn’t say where it was buried in the budget.

A prominent advocate for space exploration was not so pleased, calling Obama’s space policy a “continual disaster.” He said Obama “had a fabulous space platform when he was running for president, then threw it out.” The administration is “eviscerating the Mars program,” “threw away $10 billion in Constellation programs,” had been “promoting commercial stimulation of private space efforts then cut the funding for it.” He summed up Obama space policy as “castration of NASA.”

The space exploration advocate said Romney “has not talked much about it. But he’s tapping some pretty smart people.” Chief among these is Dr. Scott Pace, chair of Romney’s space policy advisory group and director of space policy at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Pace was the assistant director for space and aeronautics in the George W. Bush administration and later a senior administrator at NASA. “Romney,” the space advocate said, “is the guy who’s surrounded himself with the best team of advisers, but he needs a vision and a plan.”

Gingrich claims to have both. The space advocate was lukewarm about Gingrich’s “prize model,” which he said would “work okay, but it’s not a panacea.” And he took issue with Newt’s idea for an “all-American lunar colony.” He said, “We need to work with other countries. The -Ariane 5 [the European Space Agency’s heavy launch vehicle] is the best commercial delivery system in the world. Gingrich is not diplomatically astute.”

This last struck me as a kindly assessment. And the space advocate was, in fact, kindly disposed to Gingrich. He said, “Of all the politicians I’ve ever heard, Newt is the sharpest and most knowledgeable about the hows and whys of space. This is not a campaign platform thing. He’s been consistent for years. He’s more vibrant, more focused on space programs than any of the other candidates. The ridicule of Newt’s ideas showed public and political ignorance.” And he noted that Newt, like Romney, has consulted seriously smart people. “He has Bob Walker on board.”

Walker was willing to be interviewed on the record. A Pennsylvania congressman from 1977 to 1997, he was chairman of the House Science Committee and founder, with Gingrich, of the bipartisan space caucus. In 2001 Bush appointed Walker to chair the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry.

Despite being a ruthless deficit hawk and representing a state with more invested in digging for coal than soaring to heights, Walker promoted spending on space programs. Though wisely, please. “I’m not suggesting spending more money,” he said, “but spending it in a different way.” Gingrich’s prizes would be one way, he said, to promote “some of the more difficult objectives in space. It’s what took Lindbergh across the Atlantic. The motive is not just money but glory, and prize contestants will find the resources to achieve that goal.”

Walker’s criticism of NASA is gentler than Gingrich’s. “Congress has mandated that NASA become risk averse,” he said. “It can no longer do the kind of thing that drove the Mercury program, when the astronauts had a one in seven chance of death.” (The Mercury program sent Alan Shepard into sub-orbit on a slightly modified U.S. Army Redstone rocket manufactured by the Chrysler Corporation, with fins not dissimilar to those on its cars.) Limitations on risk hindered NASA but so did limitless expense. “Apollo,” Walker said, “left an ‘any price will be paid’ legacy at NASA.”

Walker’s own suggestion is for NASA to become an R&D center, “not a builder but an operation to help people pursuing goals, with investment beyond government investment. We can’t use NASA as the only route into space.”

Walker said he was initially skeptical about Obama’s Augustine Commission but ended up applauding its call for “more commercial input.” He liked the initial direction of Obama’s space policy, but “the White House hasn’t put a lot of effort behind what they set out to do. The White House is not willing to invest political capital in its program.”

As for the other candidates, he said Romney had put together a good “space team,” but they were mostly old NASA hands. He noted that Santorum had released an ad dismissive of space programs just days before giving a speech at Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy, where Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman are major employers, in a state that, after Florida, has the largest investment in space. I took this to be a judgment that Santorum is a political nitwit. I forgot to ask him about Ron Paul.

I remembered to ask about Ron Paul when I spoke to a respected aerospace engineer with experience at the highest levels of NASA management and a string of degrees longer than a shuttle launch vapor trail. “Why bother discussing it?” said the engineer in a tone engineered to produce blunt force. “He won’t get elected.”

And neither will Gingrich, Santorum, or, maybe, the way things look at the moment, Mitt Romney. But they will continue to be audible political voices​—​Santorum at gatherings of social conservatives, Romney at Bohemian Grove, and Gingrich any place anybody will let him talk.

About what Santorum would do in space the engineer said, “No idea. His people don’t know and don’t care.”

“From Romney,” the engineer said, “we’ll get a careful and thoughtful reassessment of the space program. I don’t know what will come of it. He’s so opposed to Newt that he might not be able to back down about the moon. That was pure politics, but Romney did commit himself.”

“Gingrich,” he said, “is highly educated and purely impractical. He understands the bold sweep of space policy. But, with the moon, he’s an engineering idiot. With the prizes, it won’t work.” And, the engineer added, “I have no faith in anything he says.”

If Obama is reelected, “He’ll kill the SLS,” the engineer said. “He’ll kill the manned space program. He’ll finish what he set out to do.”

Then the engineer asked me a question. “What message will it send in 2023 or so when China can put a man on the moon and we can’t put one in low Earth orbit?”

Not to offend any sensitivities, but I believe the answer is “rots of ruck.”

“Our government needs to be in space,” the engineer said. “I don’t see another tool large enough to accomplish the task. U.S. leadership​—​I look at it as job one for space policy. It’s not just the military or tech benefits and all that. People look up to the United States.”

But if these people keep looking up for long, there won’t be any United States to see among the stars.

P. J. O’Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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