I don’t pretend to be all up on American politics, I look to much more intelligent people than I for understanding of those matters, but if there’s one thing that I know inside and out its space and the industry that surrounds it in the USA. As it’s campaign time now in the USA presidential hopefuls turn to high rhetoric and sweeping promises in order to win votes for their elections and the space program is not immune to this. Indeed it seems that NASA is most often used as a rhetorical tool that ends up under-delivering on its promises, mostly because those promises aren’t backed up with the appropriate funding.
Jumping back a presidency you can see why this was so, with George Bush’s vision for space exploration that had us returning to the moon by 2020. Instead of adding additional funding to complete those goals and all of those already set out for NASA much of the vision was funded out of cancelling other projects, like the Shuttle and their involvement with the International Space Station. What this resulted in was a program that was under-funded and ultimately impinged heavily on NASA’s ability to conduct many of their other core directives. The VSE was then replaced by the Obama administration which had a larger focus on building core space exploration infrastructure whilst out-sourcing rudimentary activities to the private sector, a much better direction for NASA to head in.
Newt Gingrich, current candidate for the Republican nomination, made some sweeping statements about how he’d reform NASA and see Bush’s original vision achieved. He would see a permanent moon base by 2020, a good chunk of NASA’s budget allocated for private incentives and a culling of some of the bureaucracy. They’re ambitious goals, especially considering that Bush made similar ones almost a decade prior that are no where close to being achieved. Still there are some good ideas contained within his vision, but a whole lot more that just show a total lack of understanding.
As always Neil deGrasse Tyson does a much better job of tearing it down than I ever could:
Neil hits on a point that I’ve long held true: NASA should be charged with advancing space frontiers and the private sector should be tasked with the things that are now routine. We’re already seeing that kind of industry develop what with companies like SpaceX gearing up to resupply the ISS with several others developing along the same lines. This is where the private industry does well but it does not do well in pushing the frontier forward. That’s an inherently risky venture, one that’s very unlikely to be undertaken by any private agency. Advancing the frontier is the realm of the government and NASA is the agency to do it.
Where I do agree with Newt though is the slimming down of the NASA bureaucracy. Much of the costs incurred by the Shuttle program was the standing army of people it had, not the actual launches themselves. The original plan of launching often, up to 50 missions per year, would have drastically reduced the impact this standing army had on the cost per launch of the Shuttle. With the cancellation of the shuttle program much of that will have already been cut but NASA is still quite a large agency. How that would be achieved is left as an exercise to the reader.
Extraordinary ideas require extraordinary amounts of support and whilst I’d love to believe that Gingrich would follow through with this idea I’ve seen how ideas like this have panned out in the past. Thankfully, with or without Gingrich’s interference, the private space industry is setting itself up as being a viable replacement for the rudimentary activities that NASA needs not bother themselves with any more. What I’d like to see now is Obama’s vision for NASA has changed since he cancelled constellation and whether or not he falls victim to the same high rhetoric trap of over-promising and then not support the vision.