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.

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