Go to any of the 2016 presidential candidates’ websites and look for their space policy. Actually, don’t bother, because you would be wasting your time. None of them have one. It is a sad symptom of just how far space exploration has plummeted off the list of national priorities, and just another reminder of how modest our human spaceflight hopes have become.
Sure, if you dig deep enough, you can usually find some offbeat comment on the space program from most of the people who want to be the leader of the free world, some of which are pretty wild, but this is a far cry from having an actual, publicly-listed policy position on the matter.
What’s even worse is that there has been no real questioning of the candidates on the national stage regarding their views on space and NASA. There have been close to 20 debates so far in the election cycle, and not one question has been asked about America’s future out among the stars.
It’s quite a change from elections past. Even as recently as the 2012 election, space was a fairly recurring topic. Newt Gingrich even made it a central platform during his rise in the national polls. In 2008, the fate of the Space Shuttle and Bush’s Constellation program was a very hot topic.
This year is very different. Space isn’t much of an issue to any candidate; perhaps the only one with any real interest is Sen. Ted Cruz, who as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, has advocated for NASA to focus on exploration, though at the expense of scientific research. This is par for the course when you are a Texas Senator, seeing as NASA and its vendors have deep roots in Houston and Texas as a whole. But even for Cruz, space seems to be a backseat issue compared to other domestic and national security concerns.
Then again, the fact that the candidates don’t treat the space issue as if it really matters makes some sense, as there appears to be a huge gap between the electorate’s perception of the idea of space exploration and what is actually happening in that realm.
Does Space Matter To The Public?
If you ask most Americans, they’d probably say they’re at least interested in in space exploration. When the issue was polled in 2013, 75 percent of those asked supported a manned mission to Mars, and an increase of the NASA budget to one percent of the total federal budget to see it happen. No matter how old you are, whether you saw it live or read about in the history books, NASA’s 1960s glory days of the moon landing loom large in the public imagination. The success of modern science-heavy space oriented films The Martian, Gravity and Interstellar at least show people remain excited about the topic and are willing to prove it with their wallets.
Yet this interest in space travel in the fictional world has not converted well into excitement for what’s actually happen in the real world. The fact that America largely spent the last decade shuttering a high-exposure but stunted space vehicle program, the Space Shuttle, and turned to Russia and the private sector for its low-earth orbit access needs, has not helped. Watching companies struggle for years on what looks like the same capabilities NASA painstakingly pioneered in the 1950s and 1960s is only exciting for the geekiest among us.
There have been some exciting accomplishments that may become of high value, like returning the first stage of a rocket back to earth via vertical landing, and Commander Scott Kelly’s year long stint on the International Space Station, but these types of things are just a quick news blip to most people. Not everyone worships Elon Musk, or loves to read stories comparing him to Tony Stark. Space is now a background issue.
Private spaceflight companies are not to be blamed for this situation. They should be applauded for trying to answer NASA’s original “commercial crew and cargo” challenge. The fact is that NASA itself has chosen a diminished role in near-term spaceflight—as has the Obama administration—and after a decade of development a human being has still not flown on a commercial crew vehicle.
In fact, it’s critical to remember even the current administration hasn’t been a leader when it comes to space. Here’s former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin in a congressional hearing just last month:
“To quote my friend and colleague Jim Albaugh, the now-retired CEO of Boeing Commercial Aircraft, the current administration’s view of our nation’s future in space offers ‘no dream, no vision, no plan, no budget, and no remorse,’” Griffin said during a hearing of the House Science Committee. “We must remedy this matter with all deliberate speed.”
So the idea that the U.S. should just turn over more of its space portfolio to the private sector is laughable.
While NASA’s human spaceflight division is not entirely outsourced now as many in the public likely believe, the future’s heavy lifting will still supposedly be done by big government. This will come in the form of the Space Launch System (SLS), a largely unremarkable hodgepodge on 1970s era propulsion technology left over from the shuttle program. This does not mean the SLS will be an incapable system, if it even actually launches in its full-power configuration. What it does mean is that billions will be spent on it without really advancing rocket technology in large and meaningful ways. With this in mind, the SLS may be a practical approach, but it is not a highly innovative one.
The biggest issue with the SLS program is not that it lacks trailblazing new technologies, it’s that it lacks is a clear and near-term mission. Multiple Presidential administrations will have to continue to fund the SLS for the concept to pay off in the coming decades. As such, it’s far from a proposition like John F. Kennedy’s “get to the moon before the decade is out” was half a century ago and far out of the public’s collective consciousness.
Currently the SLS development and mission timeline has multiple years not months between launches. It’s theoretical plan spans nearly two decades from today, with no real set end-game firmly scheduled that will take us to Mars, or even back to the moon for that matter.
In fact, beyond a 2022 test flight there is no real mission for the giant rocket at all, just conjecture about trips to an asteroid and a hollow mandate for a trip to Mars in the 2030s. All of these require robust support from Congress, the White House and especially the public.
No bucks, no Buck Rogers.
NASA Can’t Sell The Space Dream
As much as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden or those in the private spaceflight community would love to tell you how exciting America’s space program is today, it’s not. NASA has a major marketing problem, and it’s not about PR or making better viral videos, it is about their ability to sell space and big ideas within relevant timelines.
Commercial crew initiatives and the seemingly never ending tests on NASA’s own the Orion capsule are not sexy, they don’t capture the public’s attention. In fact, they seem alarmingly dated. Turning Kennedy Space Center into a pay-to-play commercial industrial park may sound innovative, but it guts NASA’s soul in the process.
The space issue is not just about exploration and science; it’s about America’s competitive edge in the world, our national security and about who we are as a people. And above all else, it can be about money. The Apollo program gave us many of the key innovations that leapfrogged America into the spot as the world’s technological leader for decades to come. The integrated circuit, CAT and MRI scanners, complex software development, fly-by-wire, Photovoltaics, massive communications innovations, cordless tools, advanced insulating materials, vacuum sealing, advanced water purification—all things and so many more were created out of Apollo.
We are still living off of this trove of innovation today. The actual return on the investment into the moonshot was massive and game-changing for the United States. It set us up not just for economic success in the decades that followed, ones in which companies like Apple flourished, but it gave us the economic vitality and technological prowess to win the Cold War.
Speaking of the Cold War, that’s part of the problem. The Space Race was inexorably tied to competition with the Soviet Union. It wasn’t just altruism or a desire to further humanity, it was a need to beat the Russians to the stars. Without that driving force, space exploration has lagged.
But a new cause is glaringly apparent. When our own leaders are pushing for a green revolution, with climate change being a clear and present danger to our way of life, why isn’t a big space initiative a serious priority? If we want to really revolutionize solar, atomic, battery and fuel-cell based energy systems, and pioneer new ways for humans to survive and thrive with far less resources at their disposal, America needs to get serious and lock a few astronauts in a tin can for six months, land them on Mars, and return them to Earth alive.
Such an act not only has the potential to help solve some of Earth’s most pressing issues, but it also will give America a massive injection of new technologies that have the potential to create massive wealth for decades on end. It will also cement America’s leading position in space, something that is degrading as America’s number one economic competitor China makes large gains via ambitious spaceflight projects.
NASA does many great things in aeronautics and unmanned space exploration, but it has learned to think small and low-risk on the manned exploration front. Without exciting goals that have timelines measured in years, not decades, the iconic institution’s legacy will fade. Plans that are currently set in motion that are of small incremental nature, and over huge time spans are likely to be swept away long before they get a chance to blossom. It is the nature of our political system as much as anything else. Somehow NASA is in denial of this fact and I am not the only one who thinks this, far from it in fact.
I know what you are thinking: “This is also Congress’s fault.” This is largely true, but relying on Congress to set their own exciting course for something like America’s space program is a loosing proposition. An independent NASA administrator may go a long way to solving this problem, but as the system sits today, they are just lap dogs of the sitting Presidential Administration as that is who nominates them into office. In reality, the leadership that dictates NASA’s future comes from the very top.
Where A Pro-Space President Comes In
Still, it takes someone in power somewhere to sell the idea that a big manned spaceflight goal in the near term is not just a cool scientific challenge, but it is culturally needed—and above all else, it will be the best return on investment the country can make and America has Apollo’s legacy to prove it.
What a pro-space president, or at least a talented appointee, can do is sell it, like Kennedy did. Someone who can make the case for space as if they were prosecuting a murder trial of a loved one and can really sell the economic case for a big spaceflight goal. Someone who will make America’s leadership go on the record and say why space is not important as they turn around and also bemoan the lack of interest in STEM education. Someone who has the charisma to get others in leadership to follow them because it makes dollars and sense.
Sadly, a candidate with those credentials—or at the very least someone who cares enough about the issue to find the right person to do the job—is not to be found in this election cycle. To them, space exploration is quite clearly not even important enough to be included in even a paragraph on their campaign websites.
As things stand now, America seems to have no shot at doing anything truly exciting when it comes manned exploration of space, nor do we have a leader from either party even remotely interested in getting us there.
Illustration credit: Sam Woolley