In space, no one hears you flip-flop

When President Obama arrives in Florida today for his space summit, he will bring considerable baggage with him. When running in the primaries to be the Democratic nominee, he promised to cancel the space-shuttle replacement program, known as Constellation, to pay for new education initiatives. As a candidate in the general election, he famously changed course, promising to accelerate Constellation and close the gap between its arrival and the shuttle’s departure from the nation’s space capabilities. His first-year actions started to make good on the promise. Then, with his fiscal 2011 budget request, the president changed course again, proposing cancellation of Constellation, as he had promised in his earlier incarnation. Truly, it must be said that the president has delivered on his promise of change – he changes every year.

The president’s visit clearly is about political damage control in a swing state with a big electoral vote. His cancellation of the Constellation program kills the country’s only shuttle-replacement program, which NASA had structured carefully to minimize the loss of work-force skills, suppliers and infrastructure necessary if we intend to remain the leading space power in the 21st century. In its stead, the administration has taken two steps. First, it announced a new technology initiative, which has the potential to serve the national interest if well implemented. Second, it announced plans to “commercialize” human spaceflight, claiming its policies will produce jobs in entirely new industries. In truth, this second step simply replaces an underfunded procurement program with a different set of contractors.

There is no truly free commercial market for human spaceflight to low-Earth orbit. The current supply-and-demand curves do not intersect without massive government intervention. So-called space tourism to the International Space Station existed only because the Russian Space Agency was willing to sell government capacity to wealthy elites at the margins. (The same cannot be said for suborbital space, which is experiencing truly revolutionary developments in technology and free-market economics.)

The administration claims that it is following in the footsteps of its predecessor, which created the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to work with private suppliers potentially capable of delivering cargo to the International Space Station. That program, however, was designed as an experiment in innovation and built on the foundations of an existing free market in commercial space launch, which already responds to supply-and-demand signals. Many hoped that the COTS program would evolve and grow to encompass human spaceflight if and when a commercial market emerges. Clearly, it has not yet. The increased oversight, rules and regulations that will come with turning to this kind of program as America’s only means of sending people into space may well cause even this experiment to fail.

Nevertheless, the administration insists that changing contractor badges is the same as pursuing commercial policies, repeating its promise that restructuring the space program will create new jobs somewhere, somehow, someday. This is outsourcing, not commercialization, and it misses the point.

NASA must not be a jobs program. It could more easily employ people digging and refilling ditches. The civil space program should help America define its future in space. Doing that requires a skilled work force, an advanced technical base and a constancy of purpose. Lacking this third element, the administration faces an uphill climb maintaining the other two. Few will dedicate their careers to a program constantly responding to short-term political developments, blown from mission to mission by changing political winds.

In 2003, the board investigating the loss of the space shuttle Columbia observed, “The U.S. civilian space effort has moved forward for more than 30 years without a guiding vision. … this absence of a strategic vision in itself has reflected a policy decision, since there have been many opportunities for national leaders to agree on ambitious goals for space, and none have done so.” After the loss of Columbia, Republicans and Democrats worked together to end that 30-year failure. The board also bemoaned that “previous attempts to develop a replacement vehicle for the aging Shuttle represent a failure of national leadership.”

When the president takes his speaking talents to Florida, he will drape his policies in the rhetoric of commercialization and perhaps make some high-profile announcements that further obfuscate the long-term consequences of giving up a consensus vision for the civil space program. Barring a nearly complete course reversal, what the American people will see will be failure in action.

This article appeared in the Washington Times, April 15, 2010, B1

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