February 20, 2009
There seems to be no end of new “strategic plans” designed to “save” our nation’s space program from the purgatory of mediocrity. The latest entry into the strategic planning sweepstakes comes from the Baker Institute at Rice University. Originally, I had planned to say nothing about this report, out of deference to my old friend from the Stafford Synthesis Group, George Abbey, who is listed as an author. But recently, another author (Neal Lane) has made some public statements that are so egregiously ignorant that I cannot remain silent.
Briefly, the Abbey/Lane report urges the new administration to direct NASA to: 1) continue flying the Shuttle until 2015; 2) abandon the Moon as a goal because, “People don’t care about going back to the Moon and there’s no rationale for going back to the Moon”; and 3) focus NASA research on energy development and global climate change.
Aside from the idea of continuing to fly the Space Shuttle (not a very good idea for many reasons), none of this is particularly new but rather a re-statement of the Apollo-era meme that, “If we can go to the Moon, we can solve the (fill-in-the-blank) crisis.” Since energy and climate change are the current crises du jour, some seek to capitalize on the public’s fondness for the NASA of old (“The Right Stuff”) with the frantic cry that it should be redirected to make these “fixes.”
Although there are good reasons to question the Apollo problem-solving template, I want to focus here on the argument Lane makes that people don’t care about the Moon. It may surprise you to learn that I agree in part with his assessment but believe it is irrelevant to the determination of national space goals.
When I was on the Aldridge Commission, we received a presentation from NASA Public Affairs which showed 50 years of polling data on the question, “Do you support the American space program?” The numbers on this question have bounced around through the years, ranging from as high as about 60 to as low as around 40. Surprisingly, no matter what the agency was doing, how it was faring, what disasters it endured or triumphs it achieved, the typical breakdown was roughly 50-50, plus or minus 10. This result is as rock-solid as almost any polling number in existence over a similar time span.
Needless to say, NASA wrings its hands endlessly over this result: “How can we excite the people? If we could just come up with the correct PR plan, the public and Congress will shower us with money and support!”
I think we should look at these numbers differently. If your poll results are always around 50-50, then in a fundamental sense, people are “indifferent” about what you’re doing. So, in one sense, Lane is right – the public really doesn’t “care” about going to the Moon. What he leaves unspoken is the fact that at least half of the country doesn’t really “care” about anything NASA does. True enough, many do have a fascination with spaceflight; attendance at the National Air and Space Museum is consistently the highest of all the museums on the Mall in Washington DC. But as with any museum visit, their curiosity is easily satiated and few dwell on national strategic goals and objectives in space.
Although NASA sees 50-50 polling as a problem, I see it as an opportunity. In broad and vague terms, people support our space program – they don’t want to see NASA on the chopping block. They like the idea of going to new places and making new discoveries – they just don’t focus and orient their lives around the “sausage making” of space policy, like we in the business do. What they want from their government is a space program that does interesting things (and not too many dumb things) with programs that will make and keep the country smarter, inspired, proud and hopeful.
Given such an attitude and with a funding level almost literally in the noise compared with other federal programs (at less than 1% of the federal budget, much smaller than most believe it to be), what should NASA’s strategic direction be? I think that it should be the incremental build-up of our capability to go farther, stay longer, and to develop and increase human “reach” beyond low Earth orbit, first into cislunar (where so many national assets reside) and then into interplanetary space.
So what does this have to do with the Moon? The Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) has exactly these objectives. The plan is to fund NASA at a politically sustainable level (in constant dollars, the agency’s current budget has been at more or less the same level for the last 30 years) and give it the authority to create a growing spacefaring capability, assembled in small, incremental, cumulative steps. Our Moon plays a key role as it is the first place beyond low Earth orbit with the building block resources needed to develop and expand our spacefaring capability. Initially, this means oxygen and hydrogen, which provide consumables to support human presence and rocket propellant for re-fueling spacecraft.
Lane claims that the public doesn’t “care” about the Moon and he may be right. However, I note with some amusement that in a recent poll on critical issues the public was worried about, concern for man-made global warming came in dead last. Maybe turning NASA into EPA in orbit isn’t any better at inspiring people than creating new capabilities to explore ever more distant reaches of space.
The Vision has the promise to give us the flexibility to pursue a set of long-term goals in space that ultimately will allow us to go anywhere, for any amount of time, to do almost any job we can imagine, as well as many more that we can not yet imagine. Is this not why we have a national space program?
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