Science and Exploration

That Space White Paper Is A Shopping List For The Journey to Nowhere

By Keith Cowing
March 8, 2016
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That Space White Paper Is A Shopping List For The Journey to Nowhere
Journey to Nowhere

Last week a group of space-related organizations rented the National Press Club so they could announce a white paper on space policy. Why bother? Space is not going to be an issue in the 2016 campaign.
At the press event Elliot Pulham from The Space Foundation said “We thought it would be a good time to have a platform of information out there that all candidates could refer to, learn from and take to heart as they plan their campaigns” but moments later he also said “To some extent, the purpose of this is not to have space become a big presidential issue”. Pulham added “Let’s not undo anything.” Sandra Magnus from the AIAA said that this coalition wanted to take the issue of space policy “off the table” but at the same time she said that this group wants to “stress the importance” of space.

Such is the problem with these sort of documents from the space community. On one hand the space groups want to have a say in the political decisions that affect their members (and donors). But on the other hand they’d rather not have the politicians pay too much attention to space such that the current status quo is not upset. In other words “write us the checks but don’t rock the boat” – or more bluntly “look but don’t touch”. This is, at best, naive thinking on the part of the space community.

If you read the white paper it becomes immediately apparent that this coalition wants everything that they are doing to be supported and in some cases, they want even more money. They also want a stable funding environment (makes sense). The two main programs being supported by this coalition are SLS/Orion and Commercial Crew and Cargo with gratuitous mention of other projects that are important to the members of this coalition. Indeed that is all that this white paper is actually about: supporting specific big aerospace contracts. There is no similarly identified support for specific space, planetary, and earth science. Small wonder that the Planetary Society, American Astronomical Society, and the American Geophysical Union are not among the members of this coalition.

While a lot of prominent names are affixed to this white paper it is clearly being driven by the so-called “four amigos”: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Orbital ATK – the builders of SLS/Orion. Look at the organizations listed and ponder who the prime donors/members are. Its not that hard to fill in the blanks amidst the smoke and mirrors. No surprise folks – this is how these things always work.

So, at the onset, this partial coalition of space organizations purports to be some sort of national consensus but deliberately ignores a substantial portion of what America spends its money on in space. And yet they want this white paper to be some sort of user guide for campaigns to use when it comes to space. I am not sure how useful such a guide is when several important chapters are deliberately left out.

But to the point as to whether space is even going to be an issue such that some campaign staffer needs to even bother to generate a position paper, well, it depends on who is doing what in the campaign. The space policy circle is rather small and everyone knows everyone else. As campaign season starts every 4 years this community starts to partially parse itself between overt Democrats and Republicans – with most of the community hovering in between. I am not going to name names since that just fuels rumors that have more to do with personalities than actual policies.

On the Democratic side, the players in space policy are well known and, barring an upset wherein Bernie Sanders gets the nomination, the issue of space under Hillary Clinton is more or less settled. The Democratic players are against SLS and for commercial crew and cargo. They support earth/climate science – as well as space/planetary science, education, technology development, and tend to want to push NASA to be more relevant to a broader range of societal factors.

On the Republican side it is a little more confusing. As with the Democrats there is a core group of usual suspects that end up in the periphery of campaign policy circles. If a more mainstream candidate wins the nomination, you’ll see that crowd show more of a focus on SLS and Orion, somewhat less overt interest in commercial crew and cargo, and then minimal overt support for all the science stuff other than to say that it is important. If the nominee is further to the right (Cruz) then the policy will go deep into being anti-earth/climate research at NASA and more stridently pro-SLS/Orion and dismissive of commercial crew/cargo. If the nominee is a certain billionaire, well, he thinks fixing potholes is a lot more important. And to be quite honest, given NASA’s chronic inability to explain itself these past decades, it would be hard to argue to the electorate that space stuff is more important than fixing the crumbling infrastructure that voters are confronted with every day on their way to work.

In a nutshell, if a campaign feels the need to address space as an issue – and this white paper agrees with what they want to say – even if only partially – then they will cite it as some sort of gold standard. If they do not agree with the white paper’s verbiage then they will ignore it. And if they need their own validation they will go find some former astronauts and NASA luminaries to sign off on their own position paper. Given the small circle of people that comprises space policy community, that input has already been made to some extent in this white paper.

The saddest part of this effort is that the people involved actually think it (they) will have an impact. They haven’t had an impact before, why would they have one now? Space is a niche issue – on a good day. This effort is simply an effort to recycle the status quo. While the white paper makes quick mention of destinations in space (Moon, Mars), and cites standard buzz words and verbiage about sexy topics in technology, there is no discussion whatsoever about the lack of – or the need for – a clear space policy or strategy. All this white paper does is complain that NASA needs more money to do the same things that it has been doing without even the slightest interest in having an overarching national policy that resonates with the actual needs of the electorate – and the nation.

Until the space community actually manages to find a compelling reason to exist other than securing paychecks for its contractors and pet projects it will be relegated to the stop-and-go, flat budget, meandering path that it is currently stuck with.

White Paper Lays Out Steps to Ensure U.S. Leadership in Space, AIAA
ASAP: NASA Has No Plan or Firm Funding For Its #JourneyToMars
Kicking The Can Down the Road to Mars, earlier post
NASA Begins Its Journey To Nowhere, earlier post
Yet Another NASA Mars “Plan” Without A Plan – or a Budget, earlier post
NASA’s Strategic Plan Isn’t Strategic – or a Plan, earlier post
Charlie Bolden’s Meandering Strategic Plans, earlier post

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.