[revised and reposted; original posted July 21, 2011]
There seems to be a certain amount of confusion about what is going on with NASA politically, and at the risk of getting it wrong, allow me to speculate, from a great distance.
NASA is a creature of politics, being a public sector entity. Its raison d’etre is manned space exploration. The public has no real appetite for funding something called “NASA” that will never again take human beings somewhere off the earth. Even in the case of robotic exploration, the public’s interest, which is considerable, is due to it seeming to be a proxy for and preliminary to us going there. If the robotic explorers did nothing but send back spreadsheets with data on the composition of Martian soil, there would be zero interest. And if you look at the data that does interest people, it is, unsurprisingly, data related to habitability. I believe that if NASA does not at least pretend to make motions toward a renewed manned program, now that it has no capacity to field astronauts itself, over time pressure would build for its abolition, and no amount of spin-off technology, journal articles or pretty pictures would keep it alive. I speak here as a tribune of the People. Go somewhere or shut it down.
NASA is a creature of politics. Among other things, it is “pork” (what we call programs we disapprove of). Both parties have some incentive to keep it going, as it funnels money to various constituencies, but these constituencies are not exactly the same for Democrats and Republicans. For example, much of President Bush’s Constellation Program, since cancelled by President Obama, created jobs in Alabama, a Republican stronghold. Though President Obama would presumably have to remove the reference to President Kennedy’s call to send a man to the moon from his speeches if he were to kill all manned space flight, he gains little politically from sending patronage dollars to Huntsville, Alabama. By contrast, he does gain something by sending business to Southern California, home of SpaceX.
NASA is a creature of politics. This means that while it exists, it will be an arena where Democrats and Republicans tussle over spending priorities, and the mission agendas that best rationalize them. I suspect that “Apollo on steroids” as Bush appointee and former NASA chief Mike Griffin called it, will always be the preferred vision for the party of the New South, and of the large defense contractor. That means that for the time being, manned space exploration will benefit from Republicans and suffer under Democrats. That means that just as Mike Griffin was once criticized from the Left for shifting resources within NASA’s budget from unmanned to manned related programs, Obama appointee Charles Bolden will be criticized from the Right for doing the opposite. The recent NASA Authorization Bill envisioned a grand compromise of sorts: Lockheed continues to develop what was previously Constellation’s command module, and with Alliant Techsystems, a rocket to put under it, but technically Constellation is cancelled, Elon Musk gets to develop a low earth orbit vehicle for access to the International Space Station, and the determinate plan of Moon-then-Mars gets replaced by flexible-then-we’ll-see.
But even without competing patronage agendas between the two parties, and competing visions of the meaning of NASA as between advocates of manned and unmanned programs, NASA can still die. Because even within the community of those who advocate for manned space exploration there are divisions, because its most passionate advocates are largely conservatives, and there is more than one kind of conservative. Conservatives generally believe in limited government, but a strong defense. Unsurprisingly, then, there is something of a fratricidal mood within this community. Some think, wrongly, that NASA is sort of like defense spending, and that large, expensive projects that benefit established defense contractors are for the glory of the nation, and thus somehow the good kind of extravagant non-defense spending. By contrast, libertarian devotees of ‘privatization’ and the free market are skeptical of government boondoggles and need to vindicate this belief by seeing large non-defense projects fail. Ironically, they prefer directing billions of taxpayer dollars toward small upstart government contractors because only in this way will the ‘market’ prevail over big government. As you see, both deceive themselves in the very essence of their thinking, by their studied refusal to consider that there are such things as public goods other than defense, and that their favorite government activity is one of them. Instead of trying to persuade others who already accept the concept of a public good that this activity is worthy of support, they waste their time venting their resentment and dogmatism at each other. If, in ten years time, we have no more space program, by attacking each other pseudo-libertarians and crypto-neocons will have done as much as indifferent progressives to bring about that sad end. Because space is ultimately about expansion and openness to a larger universe and wonderment in the face of it; dogmatism and hostility have no place in its vastness.
None of this is particularly hard to understand. But while Democrats play games with NASA, punishing Republican constituencies and rewarding Democratic ones, and Republicans score true believer points against one another, it must be remembered that if NASA cannot produce credible evidence to the public that eventually someone with a pulse will walk on Mars, the public (remember them? they pick up the tab, even when it is spent on pseudo-private ventures) will rapidly lose its appetite for jobs that go to regions where they don’t live, research it cannot understand, images more cheaply produced by Industrial Light and Magic, and bitter arguments that seem more about self-deception than idealism. NASA, and the community that cares about her, has yet to find its Kennedyesque voice. Let’s hope it does so before it is too late.