Amer­ica’s space pro­gram is crash­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

NASA sched­uled the fi­nal launch of the space shut­tle At­lantis for July 8. The 12day mis­sion to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion not only will be the fi­nal space-shut­tle flight, but, with­out a se­ri­ous course cor­rec­tion, au­gurs the end of Amer­ica’s pre-em­i­nence in space al­to­gether.

Since 1960, Amer­ica’s space pro­gram has been the crown jewel and Ex­hibit A of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism. It has been a sym­bol of our spirit, in­ge­nu­ity and tech­no­log­i­cal prow­ess. It has fu­eled and sus­tained an eco­nomic ex­pan­sion un­par­al­leled in his­tory and has pow­ered the most awe­some and un­ri­valed global mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity since the Ro­man Em­pire.

Yet our space pro­gram has been in a slow and steady de­cline since the fall of the Ber­lin Wall. In 1989, our lead in all as­pects of space and space tech­nol­ogy was so large that even decades of ne­glect, waste and in­ac­tion have left us with­out peer in al­most all cat­e­gories even to­day. This won’t last long. We are eat­ing our tech­nol­ogy seed corn.

How did this hap­pen? It wasn’t be­cause of inat­ten­tion. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H. W. Bush saw the com­ing cri­sis as he took of­fice in 1989 and took bold and coura­geous steps to pre­vent re­vers­ing course on space ex­plo­ration. In the face of a call for a de­fense “peace div­i­dend” in 1990, he added money for new launch ca­pa­bil­i­ties, for pro­grams in­clud­ing the Na­tional Aero­space Plane and a new Na­tional Launch Sys­tem. He beefed up spend­ing on the ad­vanced work of the Strate­gic De­fense Ini­tia­tive and the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (DARPA), all while sus­tain­ing an al­most 20 per­cent cut in de­fense spend­ing over­all.

For NASA, Mr. Bush re­quested a one­time 25 per­cent in­crease in spend­ing and a plan for 10 per­cent an­nual in­creases for five years there­after. On July 20, 1989, the 20th an­niver­sary of the land­ing of Apollo XI on the moon, he stood on the steps of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum and called for a new round of ex­plo­ration, back to the moon, this time to stay, and then a jour­ney to to­mor­row, a hu­man mis­sion to Mars. His jus­ti­fi­ca­tion was sim­ple: It is Amer­i­cans’ des­tiny to ex­plore and to lead. Mr. Bush’s pro­gram plan was steady and even, with heavy em­pha­sis on new tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment and new ways of do­ing busi­ness. His vi­sion was clear: We would con­tinue our ex­plo­ration of space not in competition, but in co­op­er­a­tion with the na­tions of the world, even our re­cent en­emy, Rus­sia.

None of those plans came to fruition. The rea­sons are clear.

Our in­sti­tu­tions are bloated, waste­ful and bu­reau­cratic. Elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives act as fis­cal stew­ards of jobs in their states and dis­tricts, mak­ing effi- cient and co­her­ent al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources nearly im­pos­si­ble. Pri­vate in­dus­try wields its con­sol­i­dated power to smother competition, grow cost and mimic its slow and bu­reau­cratic cus­tomer. And the aca­demic com­mu­nity, for its part, deftly uses its power to in­flu­ence, ad­ju­di­cate and val­i­date gov­ern­ment science ini­tia­tives to en­sure that it gets its “fair share” of the ex­plo­ration pie.

The sys­tem has be­come adept at re­sist­ing repri­or­i­ti­za­tion and pow­er­ful in pro­tect­ing it­self and the sta­tus quo. The only suc­cess­ful ini­tia­tives to al­ter the direc­tion of our space ef­forts at the na­tional level since the end of the Cold War have been neg­a­tive. Cuts count; they force change.

Pres­i­dent Clin­ton dra­mat­i­cally re­ori­ented and re­de­fined the space sta­tion by cut­ting its bud­get in half and threat­en­ing to can­cel it out­right. Pres­i­dent Obama has changed the hu­man space­flight pro­gram by let­ting the shut­tle fly out, com­mer­cial­iz­ing op­er­a­tions of the space sta­tion and can­cel­ing the Con­stel­la­tion pro­gram. His in­ten­tion, prop­erly, is to use the sav­ings to un­der­write new de­vel­op­ments. Even in the best of times this would be dif­fi­cult, but cur­rent fis­cal re­al­i­ties are likely to push Congress to har­vest much of the sav­ings for deficit re­duc­tion. Worse, the pres­i­dent’s space team is send­ing con­flict­ing sig­nals about its com­mit­ment to his plan.

For decades, Amer­ica in­tro­duced in­ven­tions to the world, such as high­speed and per­sonal com­put­ers, ro­bot­ics, satel­lite telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, lasers, so­lar pan­els, la­paro­scopic surgery, nanoma­chines and nu­clear medicine, and built in­dus­tries and high-tech jobs around each of them in a seem­ingly un­end­ing cav­al­cade of spinoff tech­nolo­gies de­vel­oped by our space pro­grams. Will space re­main an eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal cat­a­lyst for Amer­ica in the com­ing decades, or is our fu­ture in in­no­va­tions like Face­book and Twit­ter?

The con­ven­tional wis­dom in the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy is that you can re­duce spend­ing or you can re­struc­ture, repri­or­i­tize and re­or­ga­nize. You can cut pro­grams or start new pro­grams. But you can’t do both.

Now, our backs are to the wall. To reestab­lish our lead­er­ship in space, we must defy con­ven­tional wis­dom and cut spend­ing, start new ini­tia­tives and rad­i­cally re­struc­ture a ma­ture agency — all at the same time. It won’t be pleas­ant, and it won’t be easy, but nei­ther was putting a man on the moon.

Mark J. Al­brecht is chair­man of U.S. Space. He was the prin­ci­pal ad­viser on space to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H. W. Bush and au­thor of “Fall­ing Back to Earth: A First Hand Ac­count of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War” (New Me­dia Books, 2011).

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