Dissent from Right on Obama Space Policy

Altair on the moon

Writing in the conservative National Review, Robert Costa assails President Barack Obama’s space policy as a directionless mess lacking in vision that will cede American leadership in space:

Obama looks at the Constellation program, introduced by Pres. George W. Bush in 2004 with the goal of rocketing Americans back to the moon by 2020, and sees a problem he inherited, not a challenge to be met. Obama is axing the project a decade before the deadline, after $10 billion has been spent. “No one is more committed to manned spaceflight, to the human exploration of space, than I am,” Obama said. “But we’ve got to do it in a smart way. We can’t keep doing the same, old things.”

What about the thousands of NASA employees who will lose their jobs when the program goes under? The administration plans to channel $6 billion to commercial-spacecraft developers and cross its fingers that they hire the newly unemployed space workers. These firms launch rich folks into the clouds for weekend zooms around the Earth. Surely those posts are the aspiration of every first-class mathematician and aerospace engineer who grew up with eyes toward the sky….

Obama spoke about his policy as if it were part of some grand, JFK-style vision, when it really is anything but. In addition to mothballing space shuttles, cutting jobs, and eliminating rockets, America is losing something that Obama supposedly understands, namely the big picture, big dreams about the future. Obama said it himself: No longer do we have a “singular goal” like “reaching the moon.”

…Obama’s is a stunted vision, and one that deliberately scales back the horizon for Western man, leaving the Chinese and Russians as de facto kings of the cosmos. Though the president believes that he’s smartly tossing a cumbersome program into the bin, along with its cowboy ethos, he forgets that astronauts are more than overpaid automatons of the state — they’re heroes, men whose adventures are an instrumental part of America’s own.

I can understand Costa’s point about specific goals and deadlines driving exploration and inspiring people. But, I don’t think staying the course will work.
I doubt there is the sort of political support for the massive influx of funding that NASA would need to sustain the Constellation program. Costa doesn’t really address this particular issue, which lies at the root of the dilemma faced by President Obama and the NASA leadership.

The result is all too typical: rhetorical flourishes about American leadership – and the President’s lack thereof – without practical answers to the problems facing the space agency. I’ve been in a situation like this where an organization plowed ahead despite the fact that the wheels were loose and the bridge up ahead was out. The people in charge had answers with few solutions, and solutions that didn’t address the problem or proved to be little, too late. The effort accomplished little but to delay the inevitable reckoning with reality. By that time, the consequences were more severe and the organization had few options.

This is exactly what’s happened here. The Bush Administration set forth a bold vision and then stuck with it even as costs rose, schedules slipped and technological problems mounted. It did nothing to address these problems, and left a big mess for Obama to clean up. Ignoring that fact does little to advance the debate over what to do next.

The right finds itself in an odd position. In general, it views privatization of government functions as a worthy goal, even in essential areas such as military operations. It also tends to view the corporate layoffs and outsourcing of millions of American jobs as a positive development, one that saves money, lower prices for consumers, and increase stock valuations. How is this significantly different from the policies that the right espouses? My guess is that if this plan had been proposed by anyone else but Obama (say, a conservative Republican), there would be far less carping from the right.