D. Dowd Muska


Space Corporatism Isn’t ‘National Greatness’

March 10, 2016

It would be difficult to name a policy arena that interests Barack Obama less than space.

His speeches and rallies on the issue have been sparse, and other than badly needed reforms of export controls, the 44th president hasn’t moved forward with any bold initiatives. His attempt to torpedo George W. Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” was largely unsuccessful, and no one is jazzed about NASA’s “Asteroid Redirect Mission.”

Subsidized space is hoping for a lot more from Obama’s replacement. Earlier this month, a coalition of 13 organizations -- including the Aerospace Industries Association, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Satellite Industry Association, Silicon Valley Space Business Roundtable, and Aerospace States Association -- issued a white paper “to call attention to the need for the next administration and Congress to make space exploration and use a policy priority.”

Warning that “our space leadership is not guaranteed,” the document whines that “NASA’s funding has fallen to historically low levels,” “only China and Russia are [currently] capable of launching humans into space,” and “networks of academia, industry, and national laboratories … must be enabled by the federal government in order to ensure continued U.S. leadership.”

As an online commenter succinctly -- if ungrammatically -- summarized: “Space is really important. Space is hard. NASA needs lots more money. Time and patience is a must too. Space is hard. Lets stay focused. R&D is so important. Space is hard.”

“Ensuring U.S. Leadership in Space” claims that the nation is “well-served by its three distinct yet interrelated and complementary space portfolios”: civil, defense, and commercial. Well, one out three ain’t bad. While a space marketplace is making substantial progress, government-run systems and programs are fumbling down their decades-old path of inefficiency, waste, and reduced/eliminated capabilities.

First let’s tackle the military’s performance. Cristina T. Chaplain, the Government Accountability Office’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, recently told Congress that most “major space programs have experienced significant cost and schedule increases.” The Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite program’s price tag grew “116 percent as of our latest review.” Its first unit launched three and a half years late. The Space-Based Infrared System, which performs the rather important task of monitoring whether a missile is headed America’s way, experienced a 300 percent cost overrun “and the launch of the first satellite was delayed roughly 9 years.” Costs for on-the-ground control infrastructure for the Global Positioning System have “more than doubled,” with a six-year schedule slip that some “DOD officials say … is an optimistic timeline.” (The chief of Air Force Space Command called the program “a disaster, just a disaster, and it’s embarrassing to have to stand in front of people and try to defend it, so I won’t.”)

On the civil side, NASA is a hopeless mess. In 2012, the staff of U.S. Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) ran the numbers, and concluded that in “the past 20 years alone, 27 programs have been cancelled resulting in over $20 billion wasted.” With the space shuttle subjected to a mercy killing a few years ago, the agency is pretending to be prepping for a mission to Mars while maintaining the hugely expensive and almost completely worthless International Space Station. “NASA,” American University’s Howard McCurdy observed in 2007, “has an amazing ability of taking means and turning them into ends.”

Space-based weather observation is similarly troubled. Last year, U.S. Rep Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) lamented that the Joint Polar Satellite System “has been plagued with increasing costs and delays, meaning we are probably facing a gap in satellite coverage and data.” The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series, the congressman noted, “has also experienced increasing life-cycle costs and project delays.”

Appalling mismanagement has far-sighted federal officials looking to reduce Washington’s role in space. The Pentagon, Space News reported, is “rapidly expanding the amount and type of space situational awareness data it gets from industry.” (The military already buys more than $1 billion worth of bandwidth from commercial-satellite operators per year.) NASA, which purchases competitively bid cargo delivery to the ISS, will soon buy rides for its astro-crats. Bridenstine is a fan of commercial weather-monitoring startups. The firms promise to create “a burgeoning … industry that has incredible potential to assist us in providing accurate information to protect American lives and property, disaggregate risk, and save the taxpayers’ dollars.”

During a February campaign stop in Alabama, presidential wannabe Marco Rubio bleated: “Great nations do great things. We are going back to space.” Increasingly, it’s great companies that are doing great things in space. As it should be.

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

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