The View From Here

The View from Here

Written by: developer

The View from Here Unless something dramatic happens between composing this missive and publishing it, the newly hopeful United States, under the leadership of the “Yes, We Can!” Obama administration, will commence February 2009 without a NASA administrator, and with no apparent overarching strategy for integrating NASA in a deeply impactful way into the much ballyhooed economic stimulus plan. It’s an ironic, nay, tragic, twist of events: the President who was elected in part on the backbone of the strongest, most well-articulated space policy platform since Lyndon Johnson has yet to indicate how he plans to integrate NASA into a leading role in the nation’s economic, technologic, national security, and foreign policies.

Candidate Obama was swift and decisive about space policy, and President-Elect Obama moved at light speed to put a transition team at NASA. But now, 90 days post-election, despite brisk confirmation of many political appointees, only rumors – some far-fetched – have surfaced regarding a nominee to lead NASA into the future. The only true activity, post-election, has been a policy declaration that supports restoring American space leadership and seeking to ban weapons that interfere with satellites. A good first step, but no real meat behind it.

The perspective that elevates this from annoyance to tragedy is this: our national investment in space, if funded adequately and pursued intelligently, might prove the most powerful and transformational component of any economic stimulus plan.

Investing, nearly two generations ago, in the Apollo program inspired inventors, engineers and visionaries to transform America into the sole post-Cold-War superpower. It’s the kind of economic and patriotic surge that can be provided again.

But not by building roads and bridges. Yes, these things need to be done, but let’s not confuse much-needed maintenance with progress.

The best way to remind Americans that it’s OK to believe – really believe – that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to is to reach for the stars and once again lead the world in the greatest and most difficult endeavor humankind has ever known. That requires a well-funded national space strategy and an inspirationally led and robustly funded national space agency – a daring, resurgent, juggernaut NASA.

If you consider the history of NASA since the Apollo moon landings, it’s easy to see why a leader the caliber of Bill Gates or Jack Welch hasn’t emerged to take the helm. NASA has been woefully underfunded and over-tasked for 40 years. The investment that got us to the Moon represented better than 4 percent of annual federal spending at the time, whereas in the interim four decades the agency has limped along on a budget equal to, on average, about one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget. Consecutive administrations and Congresses have allotted a pittance, riddled the NASA budget with earmarked pet projects, and then railed in frustration when the kind of breakthroughs and derring-do that characterized the agency’s first decade failed to materialize.

Our investment in space, launched by JFK’s challenge to put a man on the moon within a decade, lit a flame of technology innovation that propelled us forward for nearly 50 years. But rather than stoke these fires, we throttled back. Our elected leaders became content to fund only a bureaucratic status quo. We became content, as my friend Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson often points out, to simply fly circles in low earth orbit and watch the rest of the world catch up.

Sure, we’re building an international space station and it is an engineering marvel – perhaps, even, a world wonder. But, it, too, circles in low earth orbit – an exploration “glass ceiling” that no human has burst through since Apollo 17 in 1972.

And, while there have been laudable recent individual attempts in Congress to add up to $1.5 billion in stimulus funds to the NASA budget for important initiatives such climate change research, aviation safety improvements, hurricane damage repair, aeronautics improvement and, perhaps, shortening the gap for human spaceflight, these do not rise to the level of national strategy and paradigm shift.

These efforts are to be applauded, but it’s time for more. Much more. In order to provide major, sustained economic growth, NASA needs to have its budget dramatically increased. It is time to at least double the NASA budget, and use that money to break barriers and take us boldly into the future. It is time to think audaciously again

I recognize that many will see this suggestion as overly optimistic, or as a political impossibility. But, as Helen Keller said, “no pessimist was ever successful in reaching for the stars.”

We don’t need to shatter the federal budget or cripple the economy, (tipping points that are already in the rear view mirror) to make that reach. Doubling the NASA budget would scarcely cause a ripple: shifting from about six- or seven-tenths of 1 percent to 1.2 or 1.4 percent of the federal budget – outside any special stimulus package! I’m talking about $40 billion a year instead of $19 or $20 billion a year to change the course of history, in an atmosphere where vastly larger sums of money are doled out daily to failed companies that have done nothing to shape the future.

$40 billion annually is still only half (as a relative percentage of the federal budget) of what we spent during Apollo. But – inside or outside the economic stimulus plan – it would create new technologies, new space systems, and high-paying, globally competitive, highly sought-after jobs by the hundreds of thousands. Well-funded, NASA would have options it simply doesn’t have today – options that could reignite the passion, imagination and pride of the American people and signal to the world that America can and will compete, succeed and lead in the global economies of the future.

Rather than the either/or studies with which we are all too familiar (Constellation or EELV? Moon or Mars? GFE or COTS?), the nation could pursue multiple paths. This would employ more people, create more jobs, tolerate more risk and engender more competition. Let’s look at single-stage-to-orbit and two-stage-to-orbit at the same time. Let’s look at exploration for the sake of exploration while we also use space technologies to tackle real world issues like climate change and national security. Let’s use space investment to make this a better nation and a better planet.

For too many decades our space programs have been paced by small budgets, which limit the imagination, instead of by a larger national purpose, and we are a smaller nation because of it. Commitment to a national purpose got us from JFK’s speech at Rice University to Tranquility Base in less than a decade. It created the most inventive, technically savvy and, not coincidentally, largest space work force in the world. And what was true then is true today: No bucks, No Buck Rodgers.

We need a national space strategy. Our strategy during the 1960’s was pretty simple: Beat the Soviets to the Moon, at any cost. The world is more complex today, but I believe our strategy should still be fairly simple: Be the leading space-faring nation in the solar system, with the largest and most productive space work force in the galaxy, at any cost.

Vast benefits will follow for generations to come.

Acceleration is key: we need a sense of national urgency. And, we need leadership – most especially, political champions. JFK and LBJ were unapologetic champions for the early U.S. space program, and they rallied political champions in both the House and Senate, both Democrat and Republican. Early NASA administrators like Jim Webb and Jim Beggs were as expert at working with Congress as they were at running a space agency that was racing to do the impossible.

This is the model. We can do it again, and this time we won’t be starting from ground zero. We have 50 years of experience to use as our launch pad. We have commercial space resources that never existed before.

But launch we must.

A significant national space investment plan will put Americans to work, students in technical career fields, and the economy on warp drive for decades to come. It’s America’s ultimate economic engine.

The View From Here: Yes, We Can. But only if the visionary leadership we elected President Obama to provide extends to the final frontier.

This article is part of Space Watch: February 2009 (Volume: 8, Issue: 2).