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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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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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