Friday, January 29, 2010

We certainly don't need to go back to the moon

"We certainly don't need to go back to the moon," If one quote from the Administration captures what little governing philosophy it has, this is it. The unnamed "administration official" of the Orlando Sentinel article goes to the core of Barack Obama's conservative with a small C political and personal instincts. This is the very core of Obama's visionless Presidency.

If the NASA proposal put forth by Barack Obama's budget bean counters proves anything, it proves that Barack Obama is no JFK. Jack Kennedy threw down the gauntlet. The stirring speech he gave was both figuratively and literally reaching for the stars. When he set the goal of landing a man on the moon and safely returning him by the end of the decade, it was an incredibly bold move. NASA was routinely blowing up rockets on the launch pad. NASA had launched a monkey, Abe, into space, but sending men up to space was not looking particularly safe or sane.

JFK told NASA to hop to it. If the Russian could get a man in space safely, so could the United States. For the most part, NASA met or exceeded JFK' audacious plans. The Mercury missions were followed by Gemini, with each mission building on the successes of the other. The Apollo missions started tragically, with the cabin fire on Apollo I, which killed all three astronauts on the ground, but ended well. Even the disaster of Apollo XIII was a magnificent failure. 

It was the very successes of the Apollo programs that lead to general public apathy about the space program in the general public. "Been there, done that" seemed to be feeling. The Space Shuttle program was much more modest program than Apollo. Instead of reaching for the next destination, the U.S. invested in a platform that was little more than an airborne freight service.

As a delivery service the Shuttle was a mixed bag. It never lived up to its potential as a satellite delivery system. This was because of design limitations built into the Shuttle that the military insisted on. The other limitations were built in by the parsimoniousness of the elected leaders. There would be no more reaching the unreachable stars under Carter, Regan, Bush, Clinton or W. Bush. The restriction of funds would become quite literally fatal to the people who crewed the Shuttle. A deadly indifference and slovenliness corroded NASA. The NASA of the sixties would never have been so cavalier about chunks of foam and ice falling off their rockets.

The same lack of vision, the same indifference once again plagues our efforts in space. As with so much of what Obama has to deal with, he was handed a deeply damaged and dysfunctional agency that had huge structural problems. NASA had no real replacement for the aging and now dangerous Shuttle. They had nothing on the drawing board until very late in the Bush Administration. The product on view was more a bureaucratic exercise than serious technology proposal. It was a response to "come up with something, anything; and keep it under budget." The end result is the cobbled together Ares I / Constellation program that is supposed to get the U.S. to the moon and beyond.

The whole construct is depressingly like something NASA decided to knock together out of odd bits laying about in storage. The time table NASA is looking at is underwhelming also. JFK and LBJ were able to get to the moon just in time for a Republican, Richard Nixon, to bask in the glory of their accomplishment. JFK's vision was met with four months to spare when the Eagle landed on July 20, 1969.

Today there is none of the urgency of now that JFK once expressed. The Constellation Program, as presently planned, would take over a decade just to reach the moon. With the delays and underfunding, even that slothful schedule gets pushed back. The ultimate destination, Mars, may be reached by the 2029, or maybe not; what's the rush? Obama, never a man who lacked a plan to make a bad situation worse, has now apparently decided to bury the Constellation Program and replace it with; private enterprise.

Privatizing space exploration is the cherry on top of thirty years of deconstructing the Public realm. It is the worst possible example of the mindset that Private Enterprise is the ultimate solution to everything. It is the acme of conventional thinking in D.C., this rigid free market ideology that presupposes that private solutions are always superior to public effort.

If any agency proved what the Public sphere can accomplish with the right vision, and the right leaders, it has to be NASA. Conversely nothing shows better how "starving the beast" results in disaster. NASA's drift, NASA's inability to capture our imagination, is a direct reflection on a deeper lack of confidence in the Public Sphere. 

Going from the philosophical to more pedestrian considerations, the private option does not make much sense here either. None of the prospective private entities who might build a replacement for the Constellation have any heavy lift vehicles on the drawing boards. None of them have any real-world experience in constructing such a vehicle. Proponents glibly assure us that NASA will have a say in the safety of whatever private enterprise provides, but you have to totally delusional to believe that.

Private enterprise has only one real concern; profit. They are going to cut corners. The first hit will be on the engineers who work on the program. Private enterprise considers labor as its most easily managed expense. The private companies will hire fewer engineers, and pay them less. Secondly as profit comes before anything else, safety will be cut back. Gone forever will be NASA's triple redundant systems. Gone will be the notion of getting the absolute best and most reliable parts. Welcome to "good enough" engineering. The shaving of essential high quality parts, high quality workmanship, high quality procedures that was an issue with the Shuttle will accelerate. Innovation, one of the major benefits of the Space Program, will be strangled in the crib. 

There are some things we do, some efforts that should always remain in the Public realm; that is a core Liberal belief. It is a core belief laid down in the Constitution. It is in the very preamble of "We the people." It pre-supposes that there is a unified people, a public realm where thing are done for the group. It presupposes community. With the proposal to Privatize NASA, Obama has proven, for those who wish to see, that he does not believe in community, in the Public realm. At least he does not believe in it in any grand way. His is a very limited and cramped Public sphere. His is a Blue-Dog Democrat, small bore government, which tosses small bits of palliative relief to the middle class. It is Oliver Twist government, where the government hands out a small extra serving of gruel to the unwashed masses. It is programs over progress, and only those programs that can be passed in a bipartisan way.

Space exploration is the ultimate seat-of-the-pants endeavor. It requires a go-for-broke mindset. After all you're placing a few very brave individuals in a vehicle that is propelled by a barely controlled chemical fire. It is no accident that the two greatest proponents of manned space exploration were the out-sized personalities of JFK and LBJ. Both men had large reservoirs of reckless enthusiasm. Both men had something to "prove." Obama is in no way a man driven by out-sized dreams of guts and glory. He is nothing like good King Hal screaming "once into the breach dear friends." His only bit of daring-do was his run for the president. That was audacious but it was not reckless. He is man that does not get the mission of NASA and never will. He is exactly the kind of man who would buy into the idea that a private contractor could do NASA's mission cheaper, quicker, and more efficiently. He is exactly the type of man who would not understand that such mundane considerations are the exact opposite of what you should expect of your space program.

In the monetarily, spiritually, and culturally depressed times we live in, it is exactly the time and place we need to look up and look out to the future. It is a time to reassert our belief in ourselves and our nation. It is exactly the time we need to go to the moon again. It is time to dream outrageous dreams again; because that is what we do.