Spacelift Washington – A Forge of Consensus: Political Leadership and the Future of Space Exploration

By frank_sietzen
July 27, 2003
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Spacelift Washington – A Forge of Consensus: Political Leadership and the Future of Space Exploration

[WASHINGTON] Beneath the darkness formed by tragic events there is often a brighter side, an unseen and unexpected positive that arises from a tragic, unexpected negative.

The Columbia Space Shuttle tragedy was unexpected, unforeseen, and unavoidable. But it has spawned a unique opportunity to lay out a positive new direction for the U.S. civil space program. Such a chance for change comes but once in a generation, when circumstances force public leaders to look beyond the headlines to comprehensive policy prescriptions, whose cost and complexity often stifle their prospects.

The chance to lay down a new direction, a new rationale for space is matched by a strong undercurrent in Congress for just such a new direction. As Senator Sam Brownback (R-Ks) said last week, many in Congress want to see the U.S. “dominate the Earth-Moon system”. Brownback’s rhetorical question was, in effect, what policies and programs can Congress and the Bush Administration recommend and put into place that would foster such leadership?

The emerging consensus in Congress calls for a clear goal for the nation’s space program. From liberal Democrat to conservative Republican, members on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed frustration with the current course of space policy, and some have even expressed bewilderment that the administration hasn’t taken this time to assemble all of the current elements of NASA and civil space into a more cogent rationale.

Space transportation, in particular, has been singled out by many in Congress as lacking a direction and purpose, beyond the restoration of the Space Shuttle to flying status. What makes this all the more remarkable is the fact that many of these same members of Congress were loath to address future long term space launch needs just a year ago.

But this drift towards consensus must be forged together. A central organizing principle for NASA must be matched by realistic costs and a way for the public to channel their excitement.

For such a new renewed approach to NASA must have political leadership, both in Congress and the Administration, strong enough to be sustainable over time-and beyond the flexing, shifting changes that the upcoming election cycles- or new subjects for the chattering class –to come to grips with.

For consideration, then, here are ten steps that political leaders that care about the space effort should think about, as the summer of our discontent draws towards close, and the Gehman Board (CAIB) moves to lay out its investigation as to what really happened on February 1st, 2003.

It’s not about NASA-it’s about Space Exploration

The emphasis of Congressional hearings and NASA responses this fall will rightly center upon the future and fate of the Space Shuttle program. But the underlying issue should be broader; it should be the overall character of the entire U.S. civil space program. What does it mean to the country in this age of terror war? Why should the average person care about it? And what should the federal government reserve for itself as its central role in space activities? When to create capabilities, and when to simply buy services?

NASA Leadership cannot escape its history-but must be informed by it

Any review of the historical record shows that NASA has been the most successful – and the most appreciated – when it has had a single goal as its major focus. When it has attempted to develop a legislative consensus to support individual programs such as shuttle and station, absent a broader context into which to insert such programs, it has drifted into disarray. That record should guide the Administration when it looks beyond Columbia and the Space Shuttle to what should be the future of human space transportation.

Guard against creating the wrong public narrative

In the aftermath of the release of the Gehman report, there will be great pressure on NASA and its supporters to respond line-by-line in a defensive crouch. All of this debate about foam and fixtures notwithstanding, it will inevitably blur in the public’s perception as a case of who done what wrong. This is the wrong debate to engage. The proper narrative would be to set the experimental nature of the Space Shuttle’s missions as building the foundation for a grander, more expansive space program. In essence, the Space Shuttle is more than itself, but a bridge to more complex and demanding space adventures. Avoid getting drawn into a shuttle-for-shuttle’s sake debate. Look ahead, beyond the Shuttle.

A tragedy can create opportunity

Just as the opposite of a closed program is to throw open the doors, NASA and its supporters should encourage the agency to continue its commitment to openness even during the maximum heat of the Gehman findings. Of course, this is easier said than done when the press is beating your head in. Avoid the temptation to close ranks and get the wagons in a circle. Defy critics by opening up more doors, more processes.

Make the press a partner

Sean O’Keefe’s administration has already held more press roundtables since February 1St than Dan Goldin did in his entire 10 years on the job. Now is the time to look across NASA press relations to put these practices into a structure. Embedded reports at the field centers or within subject matter specializations? A radical concept-and time for it to be codified into policy. More daring yet-give a rotating seat to a reporter for each NASA return to flight internal meeting.

Let the press be present during every hour of astronaut training, or mission planning. Open up the planning documents, memos, and reports. Privacy is something important-but is also a luxury when compared to the need to establish a new relationship with the press that can grow after the Gehman report explodes. The time for planning a comprehensive outreach effort isn’t after the report comes out, but before.

Give the public an onramp to policy

Do you want long term public support for NASA that can translate on the Hill and in the opinion class? Then devise ways for the public to ‘participate’ in how NASA sets its future space exploration goals. Tie this directly to educational programs, but also remember one of Dan Goldin’s successes: effective town hall meetings. Dare to go beyond the beltway to sample public opinion out there in what Richard Nixon called the ‘heartland of America; the Silent Majority’. Utilize the museums such as the Kansas Cosmosphere where thousands go each year to learn about space. Start using these institutions, and the university community, to build a consensus that can sustain NASA credibility in the months and years ahead. Up to return-to-flight, and beyond. And also keep the agency steadfast should crisis or disaster strike again.

The Senate must become a space power again

If space issues are to receive continuing attention, then the Senate must devise strong leaders in the field of space policy. The House cannot and should not act alone in this regard. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla), as a result of his 1986 Space Shuttle flight, has made space a major issue for his tenure in the Senate. But Nelson should not be alone. The Republicans, as the current majority party in the senate, should cultivate members who can lead in the space policy field. Perhaps a true space caucus can be formed in the Senate. Senator Sam Brownback is moving in that direction. There should be others, too.

The House should not micromanage policy but encourage consensus

House Science Committee chair Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-NY) recently predicted that the House would be much more active in setting the future directions of NASA and the space program. More active roles for the House members in space policies is a much desired step forward and a welcome change from the blame-Goldin-but–take-no-step-to-stop-him period of the past decade. But the Congress should focus its role on drawing a consensus on space program directions, not micromanagement. The last two space projects to be micromanaged by politicians were the Space Shuttle and Space Station, the latter redesigned by Congress six times from 1986 to 1990. House committees, and the House Aerospace Caucus can play powerful roles in shaping the elements of a true comprehensive space program for the nation. Engineers NASA already has by the boatload.

Don’t look to industry for suggestions of change

The forge for a new consensus for U.S. space programs and policy won’t be coming from industry. The current shape of the aerospace community is that of a handful of huge corporations that have major interests in everything from jets to helicopters to space vehicles. Shareholder value is their top agenda. They will build and sell whatever the customer wants. Don’t expect them to tell the customer what it should build in the first place.

And, lastly and most importantly:

Political capital cannot be stored

There is indeed a consensus-that the Columbia tragedy has yielded at least one positive development: the opening of a window through which change in space affairs could pass into policy and law.
A short-lived opportunity that will not last beyond this Congress. The political support that has recently emerged for new directions for the civil space program is tenuous and fragile. It must be expended, soon, while Congress and the country divert a small amount of attention in this direction. Seizing the initiative brought about by this tragedy will take strong political leadership.

As one political leader once wrote:

“I believe that you must spend political capital, or it withers and dies. Now is the time to spend that capital on a bold agenda … the need for a rousing call to make the most of every moment, discard reservations, throw caution to the wind, rise to the challenge” … “I live in the moment, seize opportunities and try to make the most of them…”

So, who wrote those words? Richard Millhouse Nixon?

No, but the old trickster would likely have agreed with every word.

It was written, in the years before he came to the Presidency, by none other than George W. Bush.

Note: The author is an employee of the Space Exploration Technologies Corp., writes for the Advanstar Publications Group, AIAA, and occasionally UPI. The opinions expressed here are his own and are not related to any of these or any other organizations.