The arguments for what would constitute a post Obama space program are starting to rise to a crescendo. Some of the suggestions being bandied about have become decidedly odd. Wednesday, for example, the Planetary Society suggests that the next president avoid making any new space initiative for fear it would become a partisan football. The suggestion caused Keith Cowing at NASA Watch to accuse the space advocacy organization of trying to undermine human space flight, especially the Journey to Mars. In the meantime, Madhu Thangavelu advocated the creation of a cabinet level Department of Space, the better to coordinate NASA, international, and commercial space activities.
The Planetary Society essay has a most curious reading of the history of previous presidential space initiatives.
“But for issues that do not fit readily into a predefined political ideology—like space—the induced polarization by the President can be significant. In fact, Lee showed that space, science, and technology issues incur the greatest increase in partisanship based on their inclusion in the Presidential agenda. One need only look to at the responses by political operatives of the opposing party to the strong human spaceflight proposals by Barack Obama in 2010, George W. Bush in 2004, and George H.W. Bush in 1989 to see this reflected in recent history.”
The statement constitutes a misreading of recent history. As this author demonstrated in his book on space and politics “Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” both George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to elicit congressional buy in for their space initiatives, the Space Exploration Initiative and the cancellation of Project Constellation respectively. Naturally, Congress reacted negatively when the White House tried to make massive changes in national space policy.
However, George W. Bush spent nearly a year consulting with Congress and other aerospace stakeholders before rolling out the Vision for Space Exploration, which eventually became Project Constellation. As a result, his space initiative enjoyed wide bipartisan support. The second Bush’s mistake was not constantly supporting its own space policy, making certain that it was funded adequately, and indicating that it remained a White House priority. The neglect made Constellation vulnerable to cancellation by the willful, ideologically motivated man who followed Bush into the White House.
Cowing, as he tends to do, erupted.
“The Planetary Society is engaged in a slow motion effort to halt the human exploration of space. If they don’t want humans on Mars, what other places will be off limits? Casey Dreier and other Planetary Society operatives are walking the halls of Congress and quietly sowing seeds of doubt about the wisdom and practicality of sending humans outward from Earth. If Mary Lynne Dittmar and the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration have any viability whatsoever they will publicly confront the Planetary Society with regard to their whisper campaign – one that seeks to prevent humans from traveling to other worlds.”
The statement is curious, seeing that at least publically the Planetary Society has been all for humans to Mars, at least in recent years. Is that organization really trying to flog the ancient, moribund humans vs. robots controversy back into life? It would be interesting to see some specific examples. In any case, the Planetary Society is wrong in its analysis. Presidential leadership is vital for maintaining a large scale program of space exploration.
Madhu Thangavelu’s idea of a Department of Space is at least worthy of consideration. Space has expanded beyond NASA’s exploration mandate into the realms of international diplomacy, as well as the regulation and encouragement of commercial activities. Would a cabinet level department help to coordinate all of those government functions now spread out over a number of agencies and departments? Or would a Department of Space just create another level of bureaucracy? The issue of worthy of further analysis and debate.