Some people are claiming that the president's new space policy is a hoax.
Of course, what they mean is that the president isn't serious--that this is just a reelection ploy in a reelection year.
This is a preposterous claim, to anyone familiar with space policy and its history. With the possible exception of Jack Kennedy's moon program (and even that is highly doubtful), no space policy has ever been one on which public votes were cast-- other than possibly in districts that directly benefited from it, such as Houston, Texas, Huntsville, Ala., and the area around Cape Canaveral in Florida. Even in the latter cases, it's not clear that it's ever been a dominant issue in any election.
Some might argue that, while Texas and Alabama are in the bag for the president this year, Florida is a swing state on which the election notoriously hinged the last time, and a new space initiative could bring it firmly into the president's column. But it's not necessary to announce a visionary space policy to do so. It would have been sufficient to give lip service to continuing the space shuttle and space station programs, because those constituencies' primary interest is in jobs, not planets.
Well, actually, there is another exception to the rule of space having no impact on elections, and a clear (and negative) one. Former Apollo astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was, for a time, a U.S. Senator from New Mexico, his home state. That time didn't last long, because he was perceived by his constituents as being too interested in Mars, and not sufficiently interested in the Land of Enchantment. His winning opponent's campaign slogan was "What on earth has Jack Schmitt done for us"?
No one has ever won an election in similar circumstances. To the degree that we have empirical data on the matter, support of visionary space programs is not a vote getter, but a vote loser.
Consider the International Space Station. President Reagan announced it 20 years ago this year. It was originally supposed to fly in the early 1990s. Now, the goal is to complete it by the end of this decade, over a quarter of a century after it was first announced.
Has there been any great hue and cry amongst the populace over our lack of a space station? Has anyone at NASA been fired because we don't yet really have one?
No, because no politician has ever been fired because we don't have one. It's simply not important, politically.
Oh, yes, polls show support for space activities, but it's a mile wide and an inch deep. People like it well enough, but when asked to make a choice between spending on space, and spending on, well, almost anything else, space rarely even shows, let alone places.
But wait, there's more!
As I already said, the only practical way that a positive space policy ever translates into votes is in terms of its impact on local jobs at traditional NASA centers. But one of the new (and subtle) things about the president's new policy is that it throws uncertainty into the potential effects at specific locations. One of the barriers to effective management of NASA programs has long been the undue influence of major NASA space centers, which leverage their local congressmen and senators to support them on the Hill, often to the detriment of the program itself. There's an old saying inside the Capital Beltway, that "NASA headquarters doesn't have any congressmen."
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe-- presumably with the support of the administration-- seems determined to change this. He's pulled back management of the new exploration program to a new office at NASA headquarters in Washington, and he's made no promises to any of the centers about which aspects, if any, they'll be responsible for. Again, as Henry Vanderbilt of the Space Access Society points out, this is not a sign that the administration is attempting to curry favor with the voters in an election year--if anything, it's the opposite.
So the notion that the president's speech last month announcing a new direction for NASA was simply election-year politics, upon a serious examination, is ludicrous on its face.
So how do supposedly competent commentators get it so wrong?
Well, in the case of Joshua Micah Marshall, the author of the drive-by hit job on the president's policy, it can be attributed to a combination of ignorance about space policy (a subject that he rarely comments on), and a well-established animus to President Bush, as exhibited on an almost daily basis in his weblog. The ignorance is demonstrated by the fact that he never even mentions in his comment the loss of Columbia a year ago, let alone suggests that it might have something to do with new space policy a few months after the release of the investigation of the report on that event.
Neither knowledgable or even casual observers of space policy would make such an omission, because it is clear that the formulation of the new space policy was accelerated, if not initiated, by it. The status quo was clearly no longer acceptable after it, because it was equally clear that the long-term continuation of a manned space program was not possible with a fragile fleet of three shuttle orbiters.
Former NASA historian Alex Roland has less excuse, because he's supposed to be knowledgable about such things. Blogger Thomas James has dissected his unprofessional screed, and space historian (and member of the Challenger Accident Investigation Board) Dwayne Day has completed the job.
Given his supposed knowledge, Professor Roland's piece can only be attributed to undiluted Bush hatred (as evidenced by the use of the tell-tale word "Halliburton" in his little rant).
I warned about this a couple of weeks ago. Space policy is largely being discussed in a knowledge vacuum, and not on the basis of its intrinsic features, but rather, on who supports it.
Perhaps the real hoax being perpetrated here is by those who argue against policies and politics of which they apparently know nothing, as a surrogate for what's sure to be a brutal upcoming political campaign.
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.