A New Political Space Age?

For the first time in my lifetime, the Republicans control both the executive and the legislative branch of government.

OK, I know, I know. The question on everyone's mind, that no one is talking about--what does this election result mean for space policy?

OK, well maybe not on everyone's mind. But if you're a regular reader of this column, you're probably curious.

In one sense, the answer is simple--not much, at least in the near term.

The only immediate effect will be from changes in committee assignments in the Senate, and while there may be people who track such things well enough to make predictions, I don't. We'll find out in the next few weeks, since Jim Talent's win in Missouri means that the Republicans take over the Senate almost immediately, rather than waiting until January, as would usually be the case.

On the authorization side (in which the Senate decides what programs they wish to fund, and how to fund them), the current chairman of the space subcommittee is Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. Sen. George Allen of Virginia is the ranking member, so it's possible that he'll get the chair if he wants it. He might, since Langley Research Center, one of the NASA centers, is in his state. But other possibilities are Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas (the Johnson Space Center is in Houston), and Sen. Conrad Burns, of Montana. Sen. Ted Stevens, from Alaska, is also a possibility.

I'd hope for Sen. Burns, because Montana doesn't have any NASA centers, and he's inclined to favor more free-market approaches.

But the more important issue is the appropriations committee, because this is where the funding actually comes from. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, where the Goddard Spaceflight Center is located, is currently the committee chairman. I suspect that Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, the current ranking member, will take over. Like Burns, he'd be unlikely to play center favorites, since Missouri, his state, has no space industry.

But in another sense, we may in fact be on the verge of a sea change in space policy.

Many in the space community cling desperately to the Apollo myth, born of the Cold War exigency of the early 1960s.

A visionary president calls forth the nation to great achievements in space, and in response, it rallies to send men forth to the cosmos. If only we could get another such visionary in the White House, what celestial greatness could our America once again accomplish! Not just the moon this time, but perhaps we can send men to the Red Planet itself--Mars!

This remains a dream--and a fantasy.

There is no compelling need for another program to send a few elite astronauts to another planet, to entertain the plebes remaining behind, viewing as voyeurs, and it's futile and naive to expect such an initiative from an administration desperate to win reelection and cement its new-found powers two years from now. Other issues are much more vital to the American people, and they will be given the focus.

But for those interested in truly creating a space-faring civilization, that's good news. It means that the Bush administration, which is reflexively pro-business and pro-enterprise, will be able to quietly build a space policy that reflects those values, which has been missing for the past four decades. Moreover, they'll be able to do it with the cooperation of Congress, which now owes them its power, and the administration will have some clout with which to fight the intrinsic tendency to convert space policy to district pork.

There are already hints of this in the floating of ideas about privatizing the space shuttle, at least to the extent of taking it away from NASA.

The last time our nation had great accomplishments in space, we had a relatively young, vigorous president, who had control of the Congress, and immense popularity. He had appointed a NASA administrator who had the close ear of the vice president.

Then, the president was John F. Kennedy, and the administrator and VP were Jim Webb and Lyndon Johnson.

Today, it is George W. Bush, with Sean O'Keefe and Dick Cheney.

The visions are not the same, but the political planetary alignments are. If George W. Bush wants to make an imprint on the future of the human future in space, he couldn't have chosen a better team or circumstance with which to make it happen, and with his recent electoral victory, that team will be more able to fight the natural tendency of Congress to substitute pork for progress.

The key now is for the administration to decide just what it is they want to accomplish in space.

In the past, the goal of the U.S. has been to "maintain leadership." But that's a paltry goal, in a world in which the second-best space power (Russia) can barely (or not at all) afford to hold up its end of the space station deal.

We need to establish a more concrete national goal, one that can be stated in absolute terms, rather than one that is only relative to the rest of the space midgets on the planet. Our goal should be to establish a truly space-faring civilization, and that doesn't mean flying a space shuttle every few months.

It means that we have routine transport to and from space, that a large majority of the population can afford it, and that it provides an infrastructure not only for national defense, but for all who want to seek their dreams off planet.

That, rather than "world leadership," is a goal worth supporting, and urging upon an administration with the new-found political heft to make it happen. The actual policies required to implement such an achievement may be expensive, or they may simply require some changes in regulations that (inadvertently) have adverse effects on space enterprise.

Either way, the administration is unlikely to pursue them absent some sense of public interest. The opportunity now is perhaps greater than it's been in four decades.

Make your desires known.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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