Congressional Space Hearings: Signs of Intelligent Life?

Three quarters of a year after the loss of Columbia, the nation's new space policy seems to be slowly taking form.

There are rumors that the president may make an announcement of it at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the site of the Wright brothers' first powered flight, on the hundredth anniversary of that event this coming Dec. 17. According to the sources, it may focus on a return to the moon, a destination that our nation abandoned, at least as one for humans, over three decades ago.

If true, this will no doubt disappoint fans of the Red Planet, but as the linked piece points out, Mars (and the asteroids) would remain a longer-term goal, and the experience of reestablishing a lunar capability (and for the first time establishing a routine deep spaceflight capability and infrastructure) will make the follow-on options easier and more credible. The latter is extremely important, given the appropriate skepticism that many have of NASA's ability to successfully manage such programs.

Possibly in anticipation of this, Congress, or at least the relevant congress-people in the House of Representatives, are attempting to rein in the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) before it becomes another runaway train on a track toward programmatic disaster. Whatever the merits, or not, of that program, it has been planned in the absence of any long-term goals or strategies, other than continuing the somewhat pointless circling of the earth with the International Space Station. It's reasonable to think that, should the nation have a new goal for its manned spaceflight activities, particularly one beyond low earth orbit, new approaches should be employed as well, rather than lumbering along on institutional inertia from the pre-Columbia days.

It's not clear, however, if Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and Rep. Ralph Hall, D-Texas, are slowing down the train simply in anticipation of hoped-for new policy, or are actively coordinating with the White House in their actions. After all, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe gave an order to accelerate the schedule of the OSP last summer, and I've seen nothing to indicate that he's rescinded that order, let alone put the program on hold. Certainly, if the administration wanted to see that happen, it could simply do so itself by telling Mr. O'Keefe, who is part of it and reports to the White House. It certainly doesn't need Congress to act for it.

One other hint of a lack of coordination was in yesterday's hearing on the subject in the Senate, during which some of the senators appeared to be at odds with the House position on the matter.

It was clear from that hearing that the Senate hasn't yet decided what they would like to see as a goal, but it was encouraging that, unlike the House hearings of a couple weeks ago, they brought in some "unusual" suspects as witnesses. They led off with Mr. O'Keefe and Adm. Harold Gehman (who chaired the Columbia Accident Investigation Commission), but in the second half they heard from, among others, Dr. Bob Zubrin, who gave his usual rapid-fire description of how he'd do a Mars mission ("we don't need no stinkin' nuclear propulsion"--my paraphrase) and Rick Tumlinson, of the Space Frontier Foundation.

Mr. Tumlinson's spoken testimony was truncated due to time constraints, but the full version of it can be downloaded here. He led off with the comment that the next American to go into space would do so within a year, and it wouldn't be a NASA employee, or on a NASA vehicle. This statement (disappointingly, to me) seemed to intrigue some of the committee members, indicating that they're blissfully or otherwise unaware of the X-Prize, or progress toward winning it. His testimony, crafted to go after the hearts of folks like me, was largely a paen to free enterprise, and a vision of space, with its vast promise of material resources and human freedom. It was a vision of a frontier for all, rather than a science preserve for a few government employees.

Questioning was encouraging. Mr. Tumlinson, Dr. Zubrin, and Dr. Wes Huntress (one of the "usual" suspects from the House hearings) were asked by the chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whether or not the OSP should be funded. To a man, they gave the correct (in my opinion) answer, which was "no."

They were next asked what they thought were the implications of the recent Chinese manned space launch. The responses were predictable. Dr. Huntress, ever the science bureaucrat, saw it as an opportunity for international cooperation, Dr. Zubrin as an opportunity for international competition, and Mr. Tumlinson had a response similar to mine--that the proper response to the Chinese' socialist space program was not our own socialist space program, but rather, unlike the last time we had a space race, a free-enterprise one.

These are important ideas to get into the policy discussion, and ones that have been absent from it for far too long. I hope that the senators were listening, and that they will help, with the House and the White House, to finally craft a space policy for, as Apple Computer used to say, the "rest of us."

Bad Weather

While we're on the subject of deep space voyages with humans, it's useful to note that the sun has been acting up this week, disrupting communications and power, both on and off the planet. In fact, the astronauts on ISS have had to take shelter from the storm. The space station is protected from the brunt of such events by the earth's magnetic field, but had people been on their way to or from the moon, or Mars, without adequate shielding they could get a fatal dose of radiation in short order. Understanding solar weather (and space weather in general), and developing practical ways to protect ourselves from it, is one of the areas on which we must get a much better handle in order to become a truly spacefaring nation and civilization.

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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