The Wrong Kind of Partisan

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It was a little surprising, given his speech last week, that the president didn't mention space in the State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Then again, perhaps it wasn't. After all, John Kennedy, the last president to make successful a grand goal for space activities, didn't make his space speeches part of the State of the Union address--they were separate addresses.

I pointed out last week that there was little different in this plan from the plans of previous administrations. I was not quite correct.

From a political standpoint, there is a big difference, and a similarity, with Kennedy's call for the nation to land men on the moon within a decade. The moon landing occurred years after his death, and, in fact, after his second term of office would have ended, had it been allowed to begin.

In that case, and the present one (and unlike the announcements of the Nixon and first Bush administrations) the president and the Congress were the same party.

As it was in the early sixties, with a young, charismatic Democrat president and a solidly Democrat Congress, it's hard to imagine that a Republican Congress, with a Republican president at the top of his game, will deny the call for a new space initiative. Assuming that President Bush is reelected this fall, we will be five years into the new program by the time he leaves office in 2009, and while it won't be impossible, it will be difficult to pull the program out of the new groove that the second President Bush has carved for it, which does mean, among other things, the end of the shuttle program (a good thing).

All of which points out, once again, what's wrong with space policy.

I pointed out over a year ago, after the last election, that space is a non-partisan issue, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

When I say it's a non-partisan issue, I mean that the arguments about it rarely fall along traditional left/right or liberal/conservative lines. Ignoring the fact that such dichotomies are simplistic, the actual arguments are rarely that clean cut.

Modern liberals can object to the program for legitimate "liberal" reasons. It takes resources away from the poor and helpless, we shouldn't be pouring money into the vacuum of space when there are so many unmet needs on earth, we are exploiting yet another new environment when we haven't proved our ability to manage this one, blah blah blah.

Similarly, so-called conservatives have their own complaints. It's not a legitimate function of government, there's no obvious benefit, free enterprise will lead the way, etc. For an example of the latter, look to John Derbyshire's recent essay at National Review on line.

I don't agree with either position, and could put up strong arguments against them, but that's beside the point of this particular column, which is that the real problem is that space policy is politicized, but not because of any intrinsic merits or demerits of the proposal itself.

It's the fact that it's so seemingly apolitical that allows all policy participants to view it solely through the lens of who supports it, or doesn't. The party lines on this issue seem to be...non-existent. The political divide is mostly only about who proposes it.

As an example, much of the discussion in the blogosphere has been filtered through the prism of various commenters' general opinion of the Bush administration. Many people seem to be opposing it purely because it's being proposed by the "smirking chimp."

For example, see the comments section at this post by Kevin Drum. Or from Matthew Yglesias. Or Chad Orzel (scroll up for a couple more related posts on the same subject). The sense one gets from much of the commentary is that they'd favor the proposal if it were coming from a President Gore, or President Dean, but if Bush is proposing it, there's obviously something evil and cynical about it.

Orzel, in fact, is quite explicit about this:

I should note right up front that, like most people who have commented on this, I doubt that the Bush plan will turn out to be a Good Thing in the end. Not so much because I think it's inherently a bad idea as because it's being put forth by the Bush team.

Some have taken such an attitude to over-the-top extremes, spinning stories about how this is all a plot to give Cheney's buddies at Halliburton lucrative extraterrestrial drilling contracts. It's all about the Martian ooooiiiillll

There are, of course, people who like George Bush and support things simply because he supports them, and perhaps favor his space proposal for that reason alone. But although polls suggest that Bushophiles outnumber Bushophobes, Bushophobia seems to be a much stronger motivator in opposing his policies than Bushophilia is in supporting them

It would be nice if the policy could be discussed on a substantive basis--if the basis of discussion were, rather than whether or not we want to send humans to other planets to stay, what is the best policy to accomplish that, but I suspect that that's a forlorn hope in a Red/Blue America. I've seen little sign that the decision makers can break out of the stale binary thinking of the past, in which support for space automatically equals support for NASA, opposition to NASA is translated as opposition to progress in space, and in either case the proponent is more important than the proposal.

That's sad, because there are actually useful ideological divides on this issue that go beyond whether or not you believe bumper-sticker wisdom like "Bush lied, people died." It's possible to be both for the human expansion into space, and against additional funding for NASA. Similarly, it's possible to be utterly indifferent to such a goal, and still favor NASA budget increases, if your congressional district would benefit from same.

Even after the most visionary space address from an American president in years, politics-as-usual continues to triumph, and the actual implementation issues apparently remain irrelevant. Until we can get past personalities, and into serious discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of space policy proposals, it's likely that we'll continue to be largely confined to the planet on which we evolved, regardless of how many high-toned speeches the president makes.

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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