Casey DreierApr 13, 2016

Does Presidential Intervention Undermine Consensus for NASA?

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.

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