D. Dowd Muska


Mitt Romney Is Lost in Space

September 27, 2012

Fiscally conservative voters have a new reason to eschew the Republican presidential candidate, and hope for someone better in four years.

Mitt Romney’s policy briefing “Securing U.S. Leadership in Space” offers additional evidence that the ex-governor does not intend to cut federal spending.

The document cobbles together the worst components of the Romney-Ryan campaign’s “messaging”: Obama Derangement Syndrome, neocon chest-pounding, and bland promises of a better future coupled with very few details. “Securing U.S. Leadership in Space” doesn’t recommend a rolling-back of NASA’s bloated budget. It’s inexcusably thin on exciting developments with privately funded launch vehicles. And it offers little hope for reforms of the export-control regulations that hamper U.S.-based satellite manufacturers.

Romney charges that Barack Obama is no James T. Kirk: “Today we have a space program befitting a President who rejects American exceptionalism, apologizes for America, and believes we should be just another nation with a flag. We have been put on a path that cedes our global position as the unequivocal leader in space. The Russians are leading in human spaceflight right now. The Chinese may someday look down at us from the Moon.”

Such jingoistic yelping is mired, almost comically, in New Frontier nostalgia.

As the Apollo extravaganza achieved its goal and slipped into posterity, polls showed no desire for lunar colonies or a journey to Mars. On Capitol Hill, NASA’s defenders couldn’t secure the revenue for grandiose missions. But critics couldn’t compile the votes to kill the agency. So the astro-bureaucracy morphed from a band of can-do flyboys determined to beat the Russkies to the moon into a jobs program spread throughout the country.

Decades passed. Some presidents (e.g., “conservative” Ronald Reagan) grew NASA’s budget, others (e.g., “liberal” Bill Clinton) shrunk it. A parade of blue-ribbon commissions pored over the past and recommended projects for the future. Billions were squandered on never-built vehicles and unused propulsion technologies. Unmanned probes were dispatched throughout the solar system. The shuttle kept flying, occasionally killing a crew. The International Space Station (ISS) -- $100 billion in taxpayer subsidies, eventually -- orbited a few hundred miles above Earth, and produced very little useful research.

In 2004, George W. Bush, always eager to drive “discretionary” spending higher, outlined “Constellation,” his “Vision for Space Exploration.” NASA would return to the moon, and then make the leap to Mars. National-greatness pundits swooned. (Newt Gingrich loved it.)

But by the time Barack Obama took office, Bush’s “Apollo on steroids” was over budget and behind schedule. In early 2010, the White House decided to pull the plug. A horrified Orlando Sentinel reported that the “troubled and expensive Ares I rocket that was to replace the space shuttle to ferry humans to space will be gone, along with money for its bigger brother, the Ares V cargo rocket that was to launch the fuel and supplies needed to take humans back to the moon. There will be no lunar landers, no moon bases, no Constellation program at all.”

The Sentinel needn’t have worried. Astro-enthusiasts, aerospace contractors, and fedpols who represent states with NASA centers wanted America to return to doing Great Things off-planet. A sub rosa strategy schemed to save Constellation. And more than two and a half years after it was “killed,” much of Bush’s “vision” continues to be funded. Hardware was changed, milestones altered, and funding shuffled. But the federal government still has ambitious plans for its manned-spaceflight fiefdom.

In an August response to a congressional mandate that it “better articulate a set of specific, scientifically meritorious exploration goals to focus its program and provide a common vision for future achievements,” NASA boasted that it will “ramp up its capabilities to reach -- and operate at -- a series of increasingly demanding destinations.” The “vicinity of Earth’s Moon” is a possibility, as are “gravitational and centripetal force equilibrium ‘libration’ points” and nearby asteroids. Mars is the agency’s “ultimate destination for human exploration in the next half century.”

So to sum up, Barack Obama’s NASA is not very different than George W. Bush’s NASA. (The president has even expanded competitive contracting of cargo and crew transport to the ISS, a commercialization initiative begun under his predecessor.)

Not good enough, thunders Mitt Romney, who pledges that if elected, America “will have a space program worthy of a great nation.”

Confident, capable, and free people don’t need a ginormous and unaffordable bureaucracy to take them to the stars. They need innovative, gutsy, customer-oriented, profit-seeking, globally connected enterprises. It’s an approach the GOP’s standard-bearer should champion, but doesn’t.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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