Jeff Foust over at Space Politics has interviewed Eric Anderson, the Space Adventures CEO and Commercial Spaceflight Federation chairman who is serving on Mitt Romney’s space advisory board. Anderson and seven other members of the group signed an open letter last week supporting Romney and harshly criticizing the Obama Administration’s space policy.
Anderson says he’s had several one-on-one conversations with the candidate, who has expressed his enthusiasm for private sector human spaceflight development. He also defended Romney’s lack of specific solutions while pointing to the candidate’s business background as evidence of his support of commercial space solutions.
“You must remember, Mitt Romney is a very experienced businessman. People in business of course believe in private industry! They know that if you can find goods and services in the private sector then clearly those would be preferable to the government recreating that capability,” he told Foust.
Well, that settles it. The devil is not in the details, but rather Romney’s resume. Nothing to see here, move along.
Anderson and his fellow signatories harshly condemned the Obama Administration’s space policy in the letter, which was similarly long on rhetoric and short on specifics.
“We have watched with dismay as President Obama dismantled the structure that was guiding both the government and commercial space sectors, while providing no purpose or vision or mission. This failure of leadership has thrust the space program into disarray and triggered a dangerous erosion of our technical workforce and capabilities. In short, we have a space program unworthy of a great nation,” it read.
Anderson added a few specifics in his talk with Foust. He “suggested that the administration should have done more since rolling out its plans almost exactly two years ago. ‘In terms of commercial support, the current policy is not a bad one at all,’ he said. ‘However, the execution of that policy and its support evaporated after that initial period,’ adding that there was ‘the general sense that the White House didn’t really back the plan up,'” Foust writes.
There’s little doubt that NASA and the Administration botched the roll out of the plan. Could they have fought harder for it? Maybe. Would it have made any real difference? Probably not. The plan was too radical for Congress; there were lines that key legislative leaders just wouldn’t cross. The nation really doesn’t need a new President pushing commercial space policy, it needs a new Congress. Why aren’t Anderson and CSF focusing on that problem?
Anderson gives little credit to Obama or the NASA leadership for anything they have accomplished. Obama could have pretended that all was well and kept funding the existing program, hoping against hope that things would have turned around. It took balls to do what he did. And this is the thanks he gets for it, from the chairman of the Commercial Space Federation no less.
Worse yet, it’s criticism without any alternative. The candidate has simply pointed to his resume and the expertise on his space advisory group and said, “I’ll get back to you.” Is this really a good answer from a man who’s been running for President for at least 5 years. Romney is approach this as if it’s some sort of consulting gig. If space is as important as Romney claims, why hasn’t he thought it through yet?
And what of the expertise of his space advisory group? Other than Anderson, the only other business representative is Mark Albrecht, the former executive secretary of the National Space Council and chairman of the board of USSpace. The rest of the members have more traditional backgrounds.
Anderson’s company, Space Adventures, has made a fortune selling increasingly costly tickets for orbital joy rides that only the extremely rich can afford. This price of those tickets has risen from $12 million to more than $40 million over the past decade. The company’s newest venture is a lunar trip for a pair of billionaires who can spend $150 million apiece.
As a boutique travel agency catering to the ultra wealthy, Space Adventures has a trickle down approach to lowering the cost of access to space. The company proves that people will pay for really expensive trips, which inspires the companies who actually build things to enter the market. Then Space Adventures sells those seats to clients, as it does with the Russians and as it will do for Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft and Armadillo Aerospace’s suborbital tourism vehicle.
There’s nothing wrong with that model. It shows a healthy division of labor in the emerging commercial human spaceflight industry. It does create a perception problem for Romney, an extremely wealthy man who is under fire for the way he earned his fortune at Bain Capital. Given this perception, should his main commercial space policy adviser be a man who sells moon tickets to billionaires?
There have been calls for Romney to add some people to his advisory board who are actually on the front lines, those developing technologies that will seriously bring down the cost of accessing space. That could prove to be a difficult to do in an election year. Whatever their shortcomings, the Obama Administration and NASA have been very good to the commercial spaceflight industry. The last thing most of these companies want to do is piss off people they might be dealing with for the next five years. Especially to support a candidate whose plan is so vague and unfocused.
This brings us to the question of why Anderson, who chairs the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, would be taking such a risk. Yes, he can advise the Romney campaign on his own. But, the Administration might not separate that private advocacy from his role with the federation.
If Anderson is concerned about the Obama’s lack of enthusiasm for commercial space now, how will the Administration act once it doesn’t have to seek re-election again? Will CSF get the support it needs? Or will the last three years could look like a picnic by comparison?
Whatever happens, questions about Anderson’s role are a sideshow compared with the controversy over the advisory roles of two former NASA bureaucrats, Mike Griffin and Scott Pace, who gave us the hideously expensive Constellation program, and Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, who has been highly critical of the Administration’s commercial crew effort. Pace, in fact, is chairman of the advisory group.
Their presence has infuriated many in the NewSpace community that would otherwise be receptive to whatever Romney has to say on the matter. The Space Frontier Foundation released a statement on Friday saying that while he was NASA Administrator, Griffin was working on an insanely expensive plan to return astronauts to the moon. Pace served as one of Griffin’s deputies. SFF found this to be highly ironic because just the night before, Romney had said he would fire anyone for bringing him just such a plan.
The fear now is that despite Anderson’s presence on the advisory board, Romney’s space policy will look a lot like George W. Bush’s — a smattering of some commercial initiatives with a major emphasis on traditional pork filled programs. Of course, it’s impossible to know that until Romney lays out an actual plan and, if elected President, tries to convince Congress to implement it.
We’ll see what happens as the campaign progress. Maybe Romney will put some meat on the bones before November. Maybe Gingrich comes back and defeats him for the nomination. And maybe pigs will fly.