It’s Time to Let Go of America’s Space Myths

May 20, 2010

Petty. Petulant. Supercilious.

There is no shortage of adjectives to describe the manned-spaceflight establishment’s response to the proposal that NASA contract out its orbital-transportation needs.

Earlier this month, Big Aerospace’s lobbying machine plummeted to a new low, when Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, the first and last men on the moon, testified before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Armstrong averred that “most experienced rocket engineers with whom I have spoken believe that [it] will require many years and substantial investment” for commercial providers “to reach the necessary level of safety and reliability.” In his written testimony, Cernan was equally dismissive, claiming that his “background and experience” tell him “that it will take the private sector as long as 10 years to access [low-Earth] orbit safely and cost-effectively.”

The moonwalkers might be right and they might be wrong, but trapped in technocratic myopia, neither wants to admit what is unquestionable: Since the Apollo era, NASA’s manned program has been unimpressive, astronomically expensive, and on two occasions, deadly.

Contrary to the assertions of critics, the Obama administration’s plan to proceed with retirement of the shuttle (a decision accepted by congressional appropriators years ago) and buy rides to and from the International Space Station is not radical. Since Project Mercury, contractors have played a huge role in NASA’s transportation systems. And incumbents aren’t being shut out of the taxi competition. In February, Boeing was one of several companies that won “stimulus” funding for “the development of system concepts, key technologies, and capabilities that could ultimately be used in commercial crew human space transportation systems.”

So what explains the drama-queen reactions? One reason is that with NASA, classic iron-triangle policymaking -- the domination of industry, bureaucrats, and congresscritters -- prevails. Space isn’t of interest to most Americans. Pollsters consistently find that respondents are far more supportive of federal spending on entitlements, highways, and schools. The fact that for the last four decades, NASA’s highest-profile news has been the destruction of Challenger and Columbia hasn’t helped the agency’s PR.

Floating along in obscurity, the astronaut racket has been lucrative and secure for those who receive its subsidies, paychecks, and votes. Why embrace change?

But beyond the craven selfishness of the status quo’s longtime beneficiaries, for many, space is tied to America’s self-image. Manned spaceflight’s amen corner never grows tired of reminding the nation that in only 12 years, the shock of Sputnik gave way to the triumph of Apollo.

The Cold War is kaput, but there’s a new “space race” -- at least in the fevered minds of neoconservative pols, columnists, and talk-show hosts.

In October 2008, John McCain held a campaign event near the Kennedy Space Center. “My friends,” he said, “we just saw the Chinese … in space. We’ve got competition. We’ve got to stay ahead. We will be the first nation to Mars. We will continue … to lead in space.” Former NASA boss Michael Griffin isn’t so optimistic. In 2007, he offered this gloomy assessment: “I personally believe that China will be back on the moon before we are. I think when that happens Americans will not like it but they’ll just have to not like it.” (Think taikonauts are a threat to national security? Vyomanauts are on the way. India plans to put a man in space in 2015.)

At the recent committee hearing, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), another proponent of galactic hegemony for the federal government, grumbled that “American exceptionalism demands that we do better” than the White House’s proposed reforms.

Others believe that the Bill of Rights, engineering marvels, miracle cures and treatments, affordable goods and services, a thriving charitable sector, and civil society that’s nearly free of the ancient squabbles of Europe and Asia make America exceptional. Unable to let go of Apollo, space cadets hold the United States to be peerless because it spends billions of dollars a year putting bureaucrats in orbit. And that capability, under strict NASA control, can never be surrendered.

The president didn’t propose the best policy for manned spaceflight. That would be no policy, with the caveat that the public sector’s only legitimate function in space is defensive -- i.e., knocking down incoming ICBMs and diverting planet-killing asteroids.

Yet however mild, the administration’s new direction has the potential to save taxpayers money. It could also spark the development of an industry that will one day accomplish what NASA couldn’t -- and really, never wanted -- to do: Make space accessible to everyone.

D. Dowd Muska is a writer, commentator and lecturer. His website is www.dowdmuska.com.

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