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Does Presidential Intervention Undermine Consensus for NASA?

Being on the presidential agenda may induce opposition that could have been avoided

Posted by Casey Dreier

13-04-2016 17:54 CDT

Topics: Explaining Policy, opinion, Space Policy, human spaceflight

Eric Berger at ArsTechnica recently wrote an excellent analysis of the Obama Administration’s impact on NASA’s human spaceflight program, detailing the how NASA ended up with its current low-Earth orbit (the space station, commercial cargo/crew) and exploration (SLS/Orion) programs without the full resources to truly support either. I strongly recommend you read it if you haven’t done so already.

One brief section stuck out to me, though, as it contains a piece of common wisdom that could benefit from additional thought—the need of a strong President to provide long-term direction to the space program. Berger writes:

“About a month ago, during one the innumerable hearings on space policy that takes place year-round in Washington DC and elsewhere, veteran space analyst Marcia Smith summed up the general feeling on NASA’s human exploration plans: “There is a consensus that there needs to be a consensus, but no consensus on what the consensus should be.”

It will take a strong president to provide some clarity. It is not enough to say we’re on a Journey to Mars without laying out at least the framework of a plan, a timeline, and providing the funding for technologies that will bring that about. That is the kind of program that might keep Congress happy, but it never really goes anywhere.”

I believe these two statements are actually at odds with each other. Consensus for human spaceflight is very difficult, given the lack of an external authority to unite the community or even being able to clearly define what the human spaceflight community actually is. And given the current nature of partisanship in the United States, achieving consensus for the human spaceflight program might actually be undermined by strong actions of a President attempting to provide clarity to NASA.

To see how this happens, I recommend reading the book “Beyond Ideology” by Frances Lee. The author’s larger premise is that issues having no intrinsic relation to stated party ideology have become increasingly polarized in recent years. This is a function of the two party nature of our political system. If your party coalition wins, the other one loses. It’s zero-sum. Your party can win in one of two ways: you can make a better pitch to voters by demonstrating the superiority of your agenda; or you can undermine and stymie the agenda of the opposition party, making them unpopular with voters, and pick up the seats that they lose. Since you’re the only other political party, you gain in either scenario. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the “undermine and stymie” approach has been popular for quite some time now in the U.S. Congress.

Given this situation, the President and their policies naturally become the symbolic target of the opposition party. Anything promoted by the President effectively induces opposition by association. Lee demonstrates the magnitude of this induced polarization on various types of issues. For highly polarized issues like the role of government in the economy, or social issues, the impact is minimal—the opposition has already been clearly defined and generally falls into clearly defined ideologies of the Republican and Democratic parties.

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.

This isn’t to say that Presidents can’t have a significant impact on the space program. Clearly they can. But the broad consensus needed for stability after their departure from office may be undermined by the very priority they gave it during their tenure.

It what amounts to a mixed blessing for NASA, the U.S. space program does have an unusually strong bipartisan group of politicians who support the program due to NASA centers in a variety of states throughout the union. Berger notes this throughout his article, and it does, in a way, act as force that is resistant to change for good and bad. This mitigates somewhat the pure polarization seen on other science and technology issues.

But for a Journey to Mars—a major effort that would, at best, require stability and significant funding over many Presidential administrations—that may not be enough. Perhaps the solution is for the next President to maintain a light touch on space. Maybe they should speak softly through the budget process, and avoid the Kennedyesque speeches and declarations to Congress that induce the types of partisanship we so dearly need to avoid.

See other posts from April 2016


Or read more blog entries about: Explaining Policy, opinion, Space Policy, human spaceflight


red: 04/14/2016 02:52 CDT

A President's opinion does influence NASA. Kennedy, both Bushes, and Obama all attempted revisions of NASA with varying results. Problem is, the President declares "NASA's goal" while Congress supplies the actual support; if the two are at odds NASA is setup to fail.

GaryChurch: 04/14/2016 09:40 CDT

Over the years I have frequently posted comments on the half a dozen popular space websites criticizing NewSpace- and have been ruthlessly harassed and repeatedly banned. NewSpace sycophants recently resorted to copying any name I post under and posting their own corrupted versions of my opinions. These rabid disgusting creatures have completely contaminated any public discourse and that is the first problem to deal with. No criticism of NewSpace, the flagship company or it's demi-god is tolerated.

GaryChurch: 04/14/2016 10:08 CDT

"One need only look to at the responses by political operatives of the opposing party to the strong human spaceflight proposals" From the blog “Ice on the Moon”: The 1967 Apollo 1 fire was the key event leading to the end of the 1st space age before it really began. Anticipation by the aerospace industry of astronomical profits came to an abrupt end in one afternoon. It was not the three fatalities that doomed the space age, as aviation mishaps every year before and since result in hundreds of civilian deaths. The realization that space was going to be hard money would be the catalyst that shifted the focus of industry. The problem was that cold war toys generating vast revenues did not really have to perform as required and spaceships had to work as advertised. Concerning Human Space Flight, there are no false promises or rigged tests bringing in money because actual space travel cannot be faked. Industry chose the easy defense money. Despite recent public relations efforts proclaiming a new age of cheap lift the reality has not changed. There is no cheap.

GaryChurch: 04/14/2016 10:10 CDT

From the blog “Ice on the Moon” (2): At the end of 1968, 22 months after Apollo 1, Apollo 8 left the gravitational field of Earth. Human beings left Earth orbit on December 21st to orbit the Moon and the space age began. Four years later the space age ended when Apollo 17 splashed down on December 19, 1972. The Apollo 8 mission lasted six days, Apollo 10 eight days, Apollo 11 another eight days, Apollo 12 ten days, Apollo 13 five days, Apollo 14 nine days, Apollo 15 twelve days, Apollo 16 eleven days, and Apollo 17 twelve days- for a total of 83 days. Those nine missions over four years totaling a week short of three months Beyond Earth Orbit were the space age. Very soon a half a century will have passed since human beings left Earth. A repeat of the Apollo 8 mission is tentatively scheduled for 2023 but the future of the under-funded and highly criticized Space Launch System is in doubt. These SLS critics are almost all NewSpace fans with an Ayn-Rand-in-Space libertarian worldview.

GaryChurch: 04/14/2016 10:15 CDT

From the blog “Ice on the Moon” (3): The current circumstances surrounding Human Space Flight are complex and addressing the situation beyond the scope of an opinion column. However, some progress may be made by clarifying the terminology involved in discussing space. Such conversations are often a confusing mess due to years of the relevant terms being used ambiguously in misleading infomercials. Revised definitions are a must-have for sorting out exactly what is happening. OldSpace is used disparagingly to describe the aerospace “giants” that have passed on public works projects in space in favor of defense dollars. NewSpace is used to signify entrepreneurial efforts to make space pay-off for private investors by way of “cheap lift” that outbids supposedly corrupt aerospace concerns. “RealSpace” is a likely third term designating a set of definitions arguing against “NoSpace.” The fourth term describes the results of OldSpace and NewSpace efforts since Apollo.

GaryChurch: 04/14/2016 10:18 CDT

From the blog “Ice on the Moon” (4): The first RealSpace definition moves the boundary of “space” from the present Karman line altitude of 62 miles to Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) at 22,236 miles. The second definition classifies space platforms and spacecraft as essentially different constructs than space stations and spaceships. A “space station” is properly a minimum-healthy-cubic-foot-per-person compartment providing a near-sea-level radiation environment and artificial Earth gravity Beyond Low Earth Orbit (BLEO). Mating a propulsion system to a large enough station would in effect make it a “spaceship” capable of interplanetary travel Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (BELO). The third RealSpace definition regards space “travel” as necessarily a BLEO/BELO activity. Due to the distances involved, exploring the solar system with humans will require nuclear energy, multi-year missions, and spaceships of a size that, at this point, provoke shock and automatic denial.

GaryChurch: 04/14/2016 10:21 CDT

From the blog “Ice on the Moon” (5): Due to the radiation problem any long term human presence BLEO will require massive shielding realistically well over one thousand tons for even a small crew. Again, this seemingly impossible requirement provokes shock and automatic denial. Especially outraged are NewSpace enthusiasts whose entrepreneurial visions do not include massively shielded, state sponsored projects. Space travel in the cislunar sea between the Moon and Earth is a risky activity using spacecraft without adequate shielding and must eventually end when true spaceships become available. A basic guide to the requirements for any RealSpace activity can be gathered from three sources; the magazine article by Eugene Parker “Shielding Space Travelers”, the book “Project Orion, the true story of the atomic spaceship” by George Dyson, and the work of Paul Spudis that half a decade ago revealed the ice resources at the lunar poles.

GaryChurch: 04/14/2016 10:23 CDT

From the blog “Ice on the Moon” (6): This “Parker-Dyson-Spudis continuum” is the key to any real progress in space exploration and colonization. In 1976 “The High Frontier” by Gerard Kitchen O’Neill was published and this book proposed artificial hollow spinning moons constructed from lunar material as the only practical form of space colonization. O’Neill’s conclusion that no natural bodies in the solar system are suitable for colonization still holds true. Space solar energy was also proposed in this work as the economic driver of colonization and, 40 years ago, the cure for global warming. The present zeitgeist is to accept the media’s portrayal of LEO and Mars as the “logical” goals of U.S. and international space efforts. NewSpace marketing and NASA public relations are largely responsible for this farce and reversing those effects are a critical first step.

GaryChurch: 04/14/2016 10:25 CDT

From the blog “Ice on the Moon” (7): The best course would be to abandon both the LEO and Mars dead ends and focus exclusively on lunar resources and Super Heavy Lift Vehicles. Entrepreneurial efforts presently directed at reuse by landing back the lower stages of smaller vehicles would best be redirected into lunar lander development. Unless the next U.S. administration drives change, OldSpace and NewSpace will continue to generate NoSpace for decades to come. The U.S. DOD budget is proof that America has the resources necessary to change direction and begin a second space age without end.

GaryChurch: 04/14/2016 03:17 CDT

From the NewSpace groupie Cowing at NASA Watch: "The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, a semi-stealth industry lobbying group for the NASA #JourneyToMars effort has an embarrassing lack of a credible budget profile to defend. The Planetary Society, a robot-hugging, human-shunning club, thinks that it will get a non-stop gravy train of huge robotic mission budgets for decades to come. Both efforts are woefully misguided and seriously overdue for a reality check."

Stephen: 04/15/2016 08:20 CDT

“Perhaps the solution is for the next President to maintain a light touch on space. Maybe they should speak softly through the budget process, and avoid the Kennedyesque speeches and declarations to Congress that induce the types of partisanship we so dearly need to avoid.” Face it. This is NEVER going to happen. Not ever. Certainly not through multiple presidencies. So what’s the solution? I’m not sure there is one. Exhorting them to “speak softly” and avoid “Kennedyesque speeches” seems particularly futile given that giving speeches is such a large part of being president. How do you stop them if they don’t want to stop? A principle which cannot be enforced is dead on arrival. In any case, what’s the point stopping the speeches yet allowing them to beaver away behind the scenes to undermine a program? The only realistic way to provide stability though multiple presidencies is through Congressional legislation, yet consider what happened to Constellation, a program with a law mandating it but which a president decided he wanted to scrap and persuaded Congress to scrap the law and thereby the program. When President Obama complained about Constellation being underfunded, he could have gone a different route for resolving it: he could have argued that it be better funded. Instead he chose to use that underfunding as an excuse to argue for the program’s abolition. In effect Obama used the budget process to cancel a major space program. (And Constellation was no isolated example. He has also tried to use the budget process to prematurely terminate several long running unmanned programs, including Voyager and the MER rovers; and he has also persistently opposed funding a Europa probe.) Allowing Obama to get away with it over Constellation set an unhappy precedent. Will that same excuse be one day trotted out again by a future president for a future manned Mars program a predecessor set in motion but which their successor does not particularly like?

GaryChurch: 04/15/2016 09:41 CDT

"-for a future manned Mars program-" Obama is almost go so what does it matter? The next President is the person who will decide the future of space exploration. Mars is a dead end and so is LEO: the public has been steered away by those with their own personal agenda from the only meaningful place to go. The Moon.

Jim: 04/15/2016 10:24 CDT

Casey, If we can just skip past the craziness that is Gary Church... I think part of the problem is imagining that space policy consists of starting or stopping or changing projects, instead of creating a steady environment in which both gov't and private players keep doing what they do. Presidents did not initiate X-planes at NACA. It's only the JFK/Apollo paradigm that makes us think space should be seen as a series of projects instead of a continous activity that lots of different players (not just one agency and its contractors) participate in.

GaryChurch: 04/15/2016 10:43 CDT

"-the craziness that is Gary Church.." Like I said- These rabid disgusting creatures have completely contaminated any public discourse and that is the first problem to deal with. They will always try to bully into silence anyone criticizing NewSpace.

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