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Spacelift Washington: Memo to President Bush: Keep space for space

By frank_sietzen
January 14, 2001
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Spacelift Washington

Spacelift Washingon Archive


At week’s end the 43rd president of the United States ushers in a new administration and a change in image for the nation’s highest office. More than style and symbols will change of course, as the substantial underpinnings that give structure to policy gets collectively rebuilt.

While George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Andrew Card set about defining priorities and establishing new images for the end product of their travails, space matters should not be overlooked, either for its importance to the nation’s science and technology infrastructure, nor for its own unique place as an area that a president can refer to as testament to his ability to lead.

As usual, however, the outgoing Clinton administration leaves much undone in space policy and space issues. A raft of programs and priorities has failed to fully define a space vision. The irony is that the administration that came to office in 1993 in part by ridiculing its predecessors lack of the vision thing has had very little of it themselves.
For George W. Bush, the unfinished space agenda requires both subtle choices as well as programs writ large to the nation and the world. Here’s a primer for the new administration to consider in space:

The primacy of an organizing principle

The Clinton/Goldin space legacy is a rash of programs that seemingly fail to fit together into a mosaic whole, and also fails to tell who has priority over what. Goldin has made a mantra of ‘safe’ spaceflight, but other than that, programs like X-33, X-34, and Space Launch Initiative seem not only to compete against each other for primacy (consider that SLI may actually now fund X-33) but suggest different paths to the same objectives. Much was made of robotic Mars exploration because of the potential for local water, but there is no plan to robotically study lunar ice or craft longer range plans for the moons of Jupiter which seem to harbor water sites as well. Goldin’s Faster-Better-Cheaper is a major element of the Clinton space legacy, but there has been no central defining characteristics of the doctrine, nor a policy path that relates it to human spaceflight programs like ISS.

Task #1 for President Bush: Define a central goal for space-not just NASA

What should be America’s overriding goal in space? Space-based elements to support defense or national security? Turning over low Earth orbit assets to commercial exploitation? Establishing a long-range goal such as a lunar base or Mars expedition? Looking for life in all the right places? A top-down all-embracing goal would help organize both NASA and the aerospace community it serves (what a concept, service). The more visionary, the better, the shorter the timetable to completion, the more likely the goal will be reached within the memory of people who will still care.

Task # 2: Define a single voice for space

Since space matters cross the thresholds of many different bureaucratic ‘ponds’, a single centralized clearinghouse for space is needed somewhere inside the Executive Office of the President. And while the recent Rumsfeld report calls for a DoD space czar, in reality there should be a Deputy SecDef for space that answers not just to Rumsfeld as SecDef but to a chartered space council so that civil and military space needs can be not just coordinated but implemented. More than DUSD-Space but less than fully independent. And whomever is chosen to head and staff that central office should be an honest broker minimizing he or she’s advocacy past. And with the clout and access to the president equal to the SecDef and NASA Administrator. No end runs allowed!-at least that’s the idea.

Task #3: Define an overall space transportation strategy and requirements

Fairly soon this spring the fate of the X-33 will require a major funding and development choice by either Bush’s new NASA chief or (better yet) the ‘acting’ Administrator left in place after Goldin. Legislative choices concerning SLI will quickly emerge, especially with Pro-Space pushing structural changes to SLI. Bush will need to choose not only the specific programs to support but also to define where they all come together. A central space transportation priority must be selected and the expected path it will lead to clearly defined. Not every existing space transportation architecture may survive, but those who do must all feed into a coordinated timetable that yields something specific, something tangible. Like another government-run space shuttle. Or an industry healthy enough to launch tourists as well as astronauts en route to ISS business. And part of that, Mr. President, should be a open process of evaluating NASA requirements for station payloads down as well as up.

Task #4: Define a coordinated R&D strategy for agencies and industry

What should the nation expect its space agencies, NASA and DoD primarily, to provide in the way of coordinated scientific research? Towards what goals for the country? The administration should establish a technology policy roadmap that lays out-and fully funds –the president’s research commitments and calls out what it in turn expects industry to furnish –and maintain. This should, indeed needs to be, a multi-year, long-range strategy. Do not close or allow to be closed any government lab before it is certain the capabilities it provides won’t be needed a decade hence.

Task #5: Define the role of the ISS in space policy’s future

Time to convert talk about commercialization of the ISS into a firm plan for its future. If it is to be a industry incubator, then it is time to develop a plan as to how to get there, from transportation options to power and other access issues. If it is to primarily be a lab for medical research, then let’s define the research plan. If it is to do both, then industry should help define the path. In other words, time to ‘pay up’ a down payment on the station’s future.

Task #6:Always beware of the law of unintended consequences

Whether it be through a space council or whatever form it may require, bureaucracies always seek to expand their turf. Beware of the potential turf battles that will brew up from time to time, and keep tight reign on the space agencies. If Bush chooses a strong space office within the White House and a weak NASA Administrator, the tension will be obvious- and avoidable. With Rumsfeld in the Pentagon as a strong milspace supporter (although not every milspace project will bloom-farewell SBIRS. ..) a counterweight in the civil arena will be needed, just to make sure that voice is heard above the fugue. That argument can also run the other way, as it has in the recent past with NASA pretty free to define space needs within the federal government. Remember, too, that programs for purposes too easily defined can lead to the most unlikely complications. And also remember that hardware developed for one rationale might have all sorts of other uses when seen in another light.

That’s why they call it unintended consequences.

And old space programs don’t always fade away, but come back in new forms.
Consider this tale:

Currently, a popular new film in the country is Thirteen Days, a new retelling of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The missile that started the furor back then was the SS-4 Sandal, a single stage liquid fueled medium (1,000 miles) range ballistic missile. Soon after the crisis the Sandal headed for the dustbin, replaced by more advanced launchers. But the rocket when added with an upper stage saw new life as part of the Kosmos/Tysklon family of small launch vehicles. Today the R-12 (SS-4) Sandal lives on in modified form in the B family of small boosters —that’s right, commercial launch vehicles. In a sense, the ghost of the Sandal competes with our own Taurus and Athena birds. Now, who would have thought that way back then?

Task #7: Use all constituencies to support space policy

Selling outer space has, in a sense, never been easier which it is why the dismal record in doing so in the recent past is so demoralizing. But with the current cycle of 24/7 news organizations and web sites, and with more space interest groups than ever before, the message should get out to as wide an array as possible. The new administration should not avoid these new services but embrace them. Commercialize NASA Select? Who knows? But the effort of reforming space communications and PR should neither stop with Dreamtime nor with NASA itself. If you can’t make this stuff popular in today’s culture, then it’s time to give up. But it will require innovation and new thinking. The constituency for space support goes beyond the space industry itself. In other words, perfect for an incoming administration not wedded to the past stovepipes.

Task #8: Always remember who’s in charge

Presidents have had a tendency recently to think of space only when a sideshow was needed (another Apollo anniversary anyone. ..?) or when something bad happens. But the most successful space policies of the past have taken on the personification of the president that sponsored them. Not the NASA Administrator or anyone else. If there is political capital to be made from space, make sure it’s the President that both shapes the image and establishes the message. It will last a whole lot longer in the public’s mind. After all, who remembers who was NASA Administrator in 1969, or 1976-or, soon, in 1993. ..?

And whether you believe it or not, those images still resonate in the public’s collective memory.

On May 25th, we will mark 40 years to the day John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech making the lunar landing a national goal. That part of his speech has been endlessly played over and over again. But there was more to it, much more, that few take the time to remember today.

But they should.

From the transcript of Kennedy’s speech on May 25, 1961:

“Let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action-a course that will last for years and have very heavy costs. ..if we are to go only half way, and reduce our sights in the face of difficulty in my judgment it would be better not to go at all. ..But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider this matter carefully in making their judgment. .

And on a cold January night 23 years later Ronald Wilson Reagan gave another national-goal-for-space speech that we remember. But here are his other tones on space that night:

“We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain . ..space has enormous potential for commerce today. ..the market for space transportation could surpass our capacity to develop it”

On this eve of George W. Bush’s presidency, it is well to recall the space legacies of the Boston Sailor and the California Gipper.

For in space, their agendas are still unfinished.



SPACELIFT WASHINGTON © 2001 by Aerospace FYI Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction allowed with permission. The information contained herein are the authors own and are not affiliated with any other society, organization, or institution. Publication does not constitute endorsement of either editorial content or sponsoring web site.
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