Caught in a Compromising Position
For over a century, politicians have provoked laughter by calling their opponents “the evil party” while admitting that their own colleagues are “the stupid party.” In recent decades the U.S. Congress has improved on this by frequently attempting to pass legislation that is simultaneously stupid and evil and calling it bipartisanship.
Recent calls for a “compromise” in human spaceflight policy echo this old joke, but they’re more sad than silly. For six months Congress has demonstrated the emotional maturity and intellectual depth of a baby screaming “I want my rattle.” These former defenders of Constellation as the perfect and only way forward are now asserting that, obviously, we can/should/must all agree that what NASA needs is to immediately begin developing a heavy-lift rocket, which can also launch this month’s flavor of a crew exploration vehicle. Call it Constellation Light with Menthol.
While there is indeed bipartisan support among many aerospace state representatives for this slightly-less-unaffordable (i.e., 95 percent stupid) path, most recently demonstrated in the Senate’s new proposed NASA Authorization Act, what makes this so-called compromise evil is the recommended funding offset: exploration technology development.
Countless independent commissions, National Academy reports and expert witnesses have told Congress we must invest in demonstrating new technologies to make human (and robotic) exploration more affordable and sustainable. If that isn’t enough, shouldn’t legislators at least pay a little attention to what they’ve already enacted into law?
Less than two years ago, in the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, Congress declared: “A robust program of long-term exploration-related technology research and development will be essential for the success and sustainability of any enduring initiative of human and robotic exploration of the solar system.”
Then it mandated that “The Administrator shall carry out a program of long-term exploration-related technology research and development.”
(Of course, that same authorization act — remember, this was enacted into law — also told NASA to issue a notice of intent to award two or more commercial crew development contracts, but its sponsors suddenly changed their mind when a president actually aggressively funded that mandate!)
Let’s leave aside for a moment the blatant hypocrisy of politicians who like to brag about how vital human spaceflight is for U.S. technological competitiveness, even as they slash funding for actual R&D to fund shuttle-derived systems like Ares that use 30-plus-year-old technology. They certainly see no irony in repolishing an 800-year-old technology from medieval China — solid rockets — to compete with 21st-century China in human spaceflight.
Instead, I would simply hope we could stop repeating yesterday’s mistakes just because that rutted path looks familiar. We already know what happens when you don’t invest in aerospace technology ahead of time. Program managers are either limited to doing the same old stuff (just more expensively, since labor and material costs always increase), or they try something new and run into trouble because they don’t have the necessary technology building blocks. Schedules stretch out, costs go up, and eventually political support wanes, and the whole thing gets canceled (which is stupid) or — worse — it becomes “too big to fail” and eats other programs for breakfast (which is evil).
We all remember Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Of course, a cynic might suggest that Congress’ “rocket envy” caucus doesn’t really expect a different result. One senior staffer told me a few weeks ago that we need a heavy-lift program now so there is a new project that can hire all (or most) of the Constellation workers. That may be expedience, but it’s not exploration.
Have we really reached the point where space policy is so consumed by parochial politics that nothing matters except preserving the same jobs with the same contractors? Who rationally believes that an agency exploring humanity’s frontiers can, let alone should, keep doing basically the same things the same old way? Even if it isn’t insane, isn’t that at least stupid?
And what is being cut to fund a rushed, shuttle-derived heavy lift program? The Senate’s new authorization bill guts exploration technology, including the game-changer of propellant storage and transfer. The president’s budget specifically calls this out, because it would allow NASA to explore using more-affordable, proven launch vehicles whose fixed costs are shared with the Department of Defense and commercial users. Instead, the Senate’s legislation sets up NASA to, at best, achieve a rocket that can launch 100 metric tons someday, after we have developed exploration payloads to put on it. Until, like the Saturn 5, it too is canceled.
So we sacrifice practical, innovative exploration today for the possibility of more traditional exploration (“Apollo on diluted steroids”) tomorrow, just to preserve the status quo? By feeding our political appetites rather than enabling affordable and sustainable exploration — which is what we’re promising the taxpayer — isn’t this sort of compromise evil?
Let’s hope that the appropriators and the White House improve on this compromise. America’s future in space depends on it.
James A.M. Muncy is founder and principal of PoliSpace, an independent space policy consultancy.