The View From Here

Visionary Leaders in a Drive-Thru World

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

It is January 23, 2008, and Sir Richard Branson is speaking to news media and invited guests gathered in New York for the unveiling of Virgin Galactic's suborbital passenger liner, SpaceShipTwo. Branson and Scaled Composites' Burt Rutan have just opened a symbolic set of hangar doors and revealed the tightly kept secret of what the up-sized successor to White Knight and SpaceShipOne will look like. Sir Richard smiles a wide, haughty grin as he speaks of this great undertaking. This is not Mr. Branson, the billionaire chairman of Virgin Group speaking. This is Sir Richard, the explorer and adventurer, ocean-crossing circumnavigator, parachutist, balloon altitude and endurance junkie, Guinness world record holder, and winner of National Geographic's Best Adventure Award for Lifetime Achievement; Branson as Sir Edmund Hillary scaling his mountain and jauntily "knocking the bastard off."

The inevitable, insipid, question from the media soon comes. "Mr. Branson, how will yesterday's stock market crisis affect your plans?" Branson cast a withering look at the reporter. To paraphrase his answer: "This is not a one day project, but, rather, a vision and commitment that we will persevere with resolve over at least the next 12 to 15 years. A bad day on Wall Street is a bad day on Wall Street. We're doing something much bigger and more important. The future is under construction."

That brief exchange triggered memories of my sweeping disappointment in the South Carolina Democratic Presidential Debate of just two nights before. The country is engaged in a year-long campaign to determine who will be our president about a year from now January 20, 2009. And time after time the media questions are the same: "Mr. Candidate, something horrible happened yesterday. What are you going to do today, to have yesterday's problem fixed by tomorrow?" How on Earth we're to have any understanding of a candidate's vision for the next eight to ten years when our media-driven attention span is about 48 hours, is not something I can fathom.

It's like friend Nina Story put it in her song Ill Communication "we order our lives by the drive-thru."

This is why people like Branson and Rutan are fascinating. And our industry, indeed our nation, was once populated by lots of them: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, Bill Boeing, Howard Hughes, John Northrop, Jim McDonnell, Allan Lockheed, Larry Bell, Donald Douglas, Tex Johnson, T. Wilson, and many, many others in aerospace. Bennie Schriever, Max Faget, Norm Augustine, Si Ramo, and others in space. People who were absolutely committed to a vision, who ignored stupid questions or answered them without regard for political correctness or daily polls.

You wouldn't know it by our national political discourse, but visionaries can still be found in a lot of interesting places. Another long-awaited, space-related unveiling took place just two days before Virgin Galactic's New York gala. The first official movie trailer from Paramount/Bad Robot Productions, revealing a glimpse into the new Star Trek movie, hit the big screens and the Internet. Very unexpectedly, director J.J. Abrams has tied the Star Trek franchise to the early days of the U.S. space program. As historic CAPCOM audio clips from JFK's challenge to Mercury countdowns to "the Eagle has landed" play in the background, we see close-ups of shipyard workers welding together NCC-1701 - the starship Enterprise, that will come under the command of Captain James Tiberius Kirk. The trailer ends with a title eerily similar to Branson's press conference reply about the future being under construction.

Coincidence? I wonder how many other guests at the Virgin Galactic gala, like me, noticed the small print stenciled on the fuselage of the SpaceShipTwo model right there beneath the signature "Space Girl" nose art. You see, her real name is not SpaceShipTwo. She is the VSS (Virgin Space Ship) Enterprise.

I won't say much here about the VSS Enterprise or her mother ship. You can find plenty of information about them at the Virgin Galactic Web site. What I will note, is that they are a multi-mission system, capable of providing microgravity crew training or science payload capacity, and of launching not only the feathered-wing suborbital spacecraft, but air-launched upper stages (ala Orbital Sciences' Pegasus or Air Launch LLC's rocket air-dropped launcher) as well. The all-composite vehicles are nearing completion in the Scaled Composites factory, and flight testing is to begin this summer.

Virgin, one of the most successful brands in the world, is most serious about this venture. Most of their business is in air and rail transportation, where passenger safety is paramount, and Sir Richard doesn't place the Virgin brand upon any venture lightly. As for commitment Virgin has placed firm orders for five of the two-stage air-and-space craft, and holds options on the next seven production units. That is a total of 12 manned spacecraft systems, the largest single order for a U.S-built, human-rated spacecraft since the Apollo program. And it is strongly rumored that additional customers are negotiating for a spot in the production line.

Will Virgin Galactic succeed? I don't know. But they are acting like it. They have committed themselves to a vision, they are investing the amounts of money, time, energy, and innovation required, and they are pursuing it with a passion. They are not waffling or pussyfooting around.

Compare this to the Vision for Space Exploration handed to NASA by the White House. Although the White House and Congress have nominally made space exploration our official national policy, from the president's announcement in 2004 to the mandate in the 2005 NASA authorization bill, funding for NASA has not been adequate to meet the mission. The modest increases introduced by the White House and moderately tweaked by Congress do not enable the policy as stated, nor the space exploration program that we, as a nation, so urgently need. NASA has been driven not by innovators with a passion to explore, but by a federal bureaucracy and OMB requirements to save money. The time between the decision to compete for the XPrize with White Knight/SpaceShipOne and IOC for VSS Enterprise is likely to be less than the time that NASA has been forced to stretch out a single engine development program due to lack of funding.

So what's the problem? Is it NASA? Is it our industrial base?

Well, there's no question that NASA has become a civil service bureaucracy that functions much more like a federal department than like a mission-oriented space command. That's civil service, and that's the nature of federal bureaucracies over time. But there are still plenty of great people at NASA, with as much fire in their belly as Richard Branson, and as much engineering moxie as Burt Rutan. While the space industrial base has been squeezed and compressed by historically low federal funding and the loss of foreign sales due to ITAR, there is still plenty of American ingenuity to be found; but with cost control driving the bus and risk aversion screaming in its ear, innovation and exploration have been relegated to the back seat.

In 2008, the White House and the Congress have a fantastic opportunity to provide NASA with real increases in its budget as well as to reconfirm the nation's commitment to exploration by passing into law a new NASA authorization bill. We must embrace innovation and risk again. We must embrace a vision for the future and we must invest in that vision - to explore space vigorously with federal funding that is commensurate with the challenge. And we must do it, as President John F. Kennedy said, "Not because it is easy, but because it is hard."

The VSS Enterprise and NCC-1701 Enterprise will play important roles, engaging the public and reigniting public enthusiasm and support for space exploration. But movies and suborbital flight can only take us so far. The power to lift the nation will come from true leadership and a national commitment to explore space with a passion. We need a president who will articulate, champion, and submit budget requests for robust, exciting, purposeful space exploration. We need a Congress that will rally behind that president. The "conventional wisdom" (CW) is that this will never happen. Well, at last count, I think the "CW" has been 180 degrees off nominal about a dozen times already in this campaign.

The Space Foundation has been involved with most of the presidential campaigns, answering questions and providing feedback on draft space policy statements. None of the candidate positions on space are yet as strong as we'd like to see them. But with Central Florida (can you say Kennedy Space Center?) shaping up as a key battleground, we've already seen one candidate visit the Space Coast and emerge with a strong commitment to a renewed space program that ensures continued U.S. leadership in space. We've seen another candidate reverse his position from cutting the NASA budget to calling for a strong space program. A lot of good people in our industry, visionaries in their own right, are working very, very hard to defeat the "CW" and put space on the front burner again. It won't be easy.

The view from here is that all of us in this industry need to be as passionate about building the future as Sir Richard and Mr. Abrams are. We need to not get lost in bickering over the details of what a good space exploration program looks like - this much robotics versus this much human exploration versus this much science or this much astronomy - the usual fractious arguments that allow the bureaucrats to divide and conquer us. We need to unite in calling for visionary leadership, passionate commitment of intellectual and capital resources, and the relentless pursuit of a national space program and policy that will inspire, enable, and propel the next generation of explorers.

This article is part of Space Watch: February 2008 (Volume: 7, Issue: 2).