If you want to find a good case study of what’s gone wrong with the federal government’s support for new technology over the past generation, you probably can’t do better than NASA’s human spaceflight program. Sending astronauts into space was one of those signature missions that made America different from other nations, that made it a superpower for some reason other than its ability to blow up the world ten times over. America’s ability to land men on the Moon in less than 100 months after President Kennedy first voiced a commitment to do so is one of the greatest stories in the history of human achievement.
So who could have predicted back then that four decades after Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind” NASA not only hasn’t gone on to Mars, but has lost the ability to send people to the Moon? One of the greatest achievements in human history has been followed by one of the greatest disappointments. NASA has accomplished many remarkable things during the intervening period, but Mars remains far beyond our grasp, and there hasn’t been anyone in the White House for some time who could articulate a stirring vision of humanity’s future in space.
Everybody who follows the space program has a candidate for why things went wrong. Some blame big trends like the growth of the welfare state, others blame specific events like the Challenger disaster. For me, the turning point was NASA’s inability to develop a next-generation reusable launch vehicle. But wherever you assess blame in past administrations, it isn’t hard to see who will get blamed for finally ending the dream that captivated Americans in the Kennedy era. It will be Barack Obama, who surprised just about everybody in the space community earlier this year with a vision of the future that leads nowhere in particular.
The key features of this plan can be stated quickly. Kill the Space Shuttle. Kill the program designed to take Americans back to the Moon and then on to Mars. Rely on the Russians, and later domestic “entrepreneurs,” to supply the International Space Station until it shuts down. And do a lot of research.
The political appointees at NASA call this new agenda transformational and innovative and game-changing, but the civil servants and scientists who have made a longer-term commitment to the space agency see it for what it is: the end of the road for America’s human spaceflight program. The same administration that says market sources can’t deliver healthcare, energy and financial services without federal help wants to rely on those same market sources to supply lift to the space station. The administration says this plan will “harness our nation’s entrepreneurial energies,” but scratch the surface and what you find is just the latest collection of claimants for federal subsidies. The technology these “entrepreneurs” propose to use is half a century old, and they want taxpayers to cover the cost of adapting it to new missions.
We shouldn’t blame the Obama Administration for all the things that went wrong in the human spaceflight program before it got elected, but we can blame it for not having a single person in the White House who seems to really care about preserving this core American franchise. Obama’s team is too busy trying to save millions of deadbeats from the consequences of their own bad decisions to focus on big things like our future in the stars. So that leaves action with the Congress, which is predictably exercised about the administration’s lame plan for civil space.
Past experience suggests that Congress can’t produce a complete alternative to the administration plan on its own. But it can pick out one facet of the NASA program and insist on change. The obvious candidate is the part of the program aimed at producing a man-rated heavy launch vehicle for deep space exploration. The space agency proposes to spend five years researching options, and then commit to a design in 2016 — the same year Obama leaves office if he manages to win reelection. That’s too long to wait. A five-year hiatus in building things will destroy the relevant workforce while producing little in the way of new technology.
What Congress needs to do instead is declare that the overarching goal of the human spaceflight program should be to land Americans on Mars within 20 years, and accelerate the development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle for that purpose. The Orion crew capsule can be readily adapted to that mission, but development of the rocket should commence immediately rather than half a decade in the future. A schedule of increasingly demanding missions using the launcher and capsule can be laid out leading to a landing on Mars during the decade after next, and the landing itself should be viewed as a prelude to establishing a permanent colony on the Red Planet. That’s where we all thought the space program was headed when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon, and that’s the kind of vision NASA needs to recover today.
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