A Partisan Space Program

In the run-up to last week's election, some people were unhappy to see NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe actively campaigning for Republican candidates.

As Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, said in a press release: 

"Has the administrator forgotten who holds NASA's purse strings? It seems to me that after campaigning for Republican candidates, it will be pretty difficult to go to Congressional Democrats and ask them to support NASA's work. If the Democrats take over both houses of Congress, which is a real possibility, where does that leave NASA? The administrator, at this point, is putting Republican Party politics ahead of what is in NASA's best interest."

So it would have been all right if he'd had the prescience to know that the Republicans were going to retain the House and take over the Senate? It was all right for his predecessor, Dan Goldin, to campaign with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (scroll down the page for the story) in 1992, because everyone knew that the Democrats were going to retain both houses of Congress in perpetuity?

These particular folks' unhappiness is hardly shocking since, as a union, they generally favor the Democrats, and are thus discomfited by any administration official campaigning for Republicans, let alone the one whose agency disburses funding to many of their employers.

The NASA administrator is a politically-appointed position, like any cabinet member. It is common, and even expected, for such people to campaign for and with other administration officials to help elect a Congress that will support the administration's goals.

Thus, their rationale strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.

But there's another, deeper issue underlying this complaint.

One of the "genesis myths" of NASA is that it was established to explore for "all mankind," and for the pureness of science and the thrill of exploration, in a nobleness of goal and spirit that is uncolored by crass political calculation.

Thus, the space program has always had an aura of being sacrosanct, above politics, so even those who have no dog in the political fight are often disconcerted by what they see as the ugly intrusion of partisanship into the agency. To paraphrase a political aphorism, "politics stops at the atmosphere's edge."

Like many beliefs about space and NASA, this one is lofty and idealistic. It is also nonsensical, and holds us back from true accomplishment in space.

I hesitate to claim that the current space program is a Democratic space program, because Republicans have bought into it over the decades as well. Ronald Reagan made the decision to initiate the program that resulted in the present disaster called the International Space Station.

But clearly, if one were examining policy anew, as a disinterested observer with no stake in the outcome, one would view the current and prevailing program philosophy as much more fundamentally Democratic than Republican.

This is not just because it continues to roll down the groove of the legacy of JFK and LBJ.

It is a large government program having few attributes of private enterprise, which are characteristics generally favored by the Democrats. The fact that, in its current form, it's received a great deal of support from Republicans as well can probably be attributed to institutional memory of it as an essential component of the Cold War in the 1960s. Republicans tend to favor federal programs that are perceived, whether in fact, or from associative memory, to be contributing to national security.

But imagine a world in which the Cold War hadn't happened, but space technology had. Would Republicans support a massive socialistic state enterprise that had no other purpose than to fly a few people a year into space, for many billions of dollars per annum?

Or would they rather endorse a policy that instead harnessed the power of the market and free enterprise, without burdening the long-suffering taxpayer, to allow people to pursue their dreams on a new frontier?

My largest complaint with space policy is that to the degree that it's debated at all, it seems to be within the 40-yard lines. There are a large number of implicit assumptions that underlie it, which are almost unquestionable, regardless of the party of the debators: Space is about science, space is for all mankind, space is for promoting international cooperation and high-technology jobs, etc.

The debate is never about the ends. It's always about false choices, and only about the amount of budget to be devoted toward those ends or the best means of achieving them: robots or humans, space station or not.

What I want to see is a debate about what we are trying to achieve in space.

I want to see a debate about our space goals that is actually framed in terms of the two parties' supposed philosophies--big government versus private enterprise. Collective effort versus individualism. Vicarious exploration by an annointed few versus the opening of the high frontier for the masses.

That is a national debate that has never occurred in the 45 years that we've had a space program.

Once we resolve that issue, the debate about how to achieve it will become much more interesting as well. It might finally have the effect of removing the blinders from the Republicans on this issue, in which they seemingly check their brains at the door when it comes to discussing our newest frontier.

I've had more than enough of a non-partisan space program, in which the only issue is which congressional district (Republican or Democrat) will benefit from a given policy decision, rather than how the American people will benefit.

Space represents our future, and it is as important to it as the New World was to the Europeans of the 15th and 16th centuries, even if they didn't understand it at the time. It deserves to have a full-throated discussion about its potential and the best means by which to bring it to full flower.

I know that some, even many, will (ironically, considering that it's a government program) deplore the notion of making space "political and partisan." Do they really fear that doing so will somehow damage our prospects for progress?

If so, consider this.

With space vehicles that cost half a billion dollars per launch, four times a year, and a space station that has cost us tens of billions of dollars to support at most half a dozen astronauts, and no obvious plans toward significantly more capability, it's a fair question to ask--could we do much worse?


I didn't get a lot of mail last week on my discussion of how the election might affect space policy, except from one person who pointed out that the Republicans actually controlled both the legislative and executive branches in my lifetime. In fact, only a couple years ago, when George Bush became president, and the Republicans held a voting majority in the Senate, with Vice President Cheney's vote to break any ties. This circumstance held until Senator Jeffords betrayed the constituents who voted for him as a Republican, by leaving the Republican party and voting with the Democrats, a few months after President Bush's inauguration.

I didn't count this, because it wasn't true Republican control. It was more a matter of shared power, negotiated with the Democrats, in the (vain) hope that it would therefore elicit some cooperation.

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.

Respond to the Writer