Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 1: Nationalism

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
–George Bernard Shaw

Author’s note: I’ve been invited to give a talk to a local astronomy club on “the direction the nation is heading on human spaceflight policy and where we ought to go.”  As you are aware if you are a regular reader of LeadingSpace, I’ve touched previously upon matters of vision (or lack thereof), leadership (or lack thereof), and the value equation as they pertain to human spaceflight.  This, in concert with ideas from the series written by Mary Lynne Dittmar on “An enduring value proposition for NASA human spaceflight” on The Space Review, led to the framework for this topic.  You’re going to get an advanced screening below, and I welcome your feedback in the comments area.  Because of the length, I am breaking into multiple parts.  Part 1 is below.

In making the case for the direction of human spaceflight, we’ve seen numerous attempts at articulating a vision directly, such as the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, or indirectly with the President’s fiscal year 2011 budget release a year ago and his subsequent speech at the Kennedy Space Center.  Each of these is a sound attempt at providing a basis of sorts for our domestic human spaceflight program, yet both seem to fail in a very fundamental way:  none truly address the why question.  The recent rhetoric from Washington that “there is a plan” also falls short of addressing the perception that with the end of the space shuttle program, human spaceflight is also over for the United States.

So, let’s advance the dialogue on this topic by addressing one simple question:  Why pursue a human spaceflight endeavor?

We can draw some parallels from history and the development of transportation infrastructure over the last two centuries – canals, railroads, aviation, and the National Highway System.  To that we can add our real-world experiences to date in human spaceflight.  We can also bring to the table the value proposition, about which my friend Mary Lynne Dittmar has written recently.  With all of that, I’d like to propose five possible reasons around which to crystallize conversations on the direction for human spaceflight, and use these as a means to define a role for NASA and how we’d like to allocate our tax dollars.

These reasons are as follows:

  • Nationalism
  • Commerce
  • Science
  • Saving the Earth
  • Settlement

Reason 1: Nationalism.  Whether it is national security or national prestige, nationalism has influenced the development of our transportation infrastructure from the beginning.  In a paper on The Space Review published on Monday, August 15, Mary Lynne Dittmar describes this aspect quite eloquently, so I won’t dive into the details here.  Suffice to say that Nationalism is manifested in terms of “hard power” and “soft power.”

NASA’s earliest days were driven by the need to beat the Russians to the moon with Project Apollo, seeking to demonstrate the capabilities of a free and democratic society.  The continuance of national prestige in space is rooted in pushing the boundaries of exploration and technology development, with daring heroes (our astronauts and flight controller teams in Mission Control) as the personification.  The Space Shuttle Program and various attempts since at creating a post-shuttle program, all the way to the recently canceled Constellation Program, are deeply rooted in the drive for national prestige.  Desires to retain infrastructure and workforce are also coupled with Nationalism, as if somehow we will lose ground if we don’t have a large Government-run program engaging those resources.

Nationalism has its challenges as an enduring reason to justify human spaceflight that must be addressed, if it is to be a viable reason for the why.  First, I’ll point out the obvious – the Cold War is over.  Although the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s led to a unipolar world dominated by the United States for the last twenty years, the future is increasingly multipolar in outlook with the rise of the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – who are becoming socioeconomic giants in their own rights. Some in the industry attempt to manufacture a “new Cold War” by pointing out China’s space ambitions while ignoring the growing capabilities of the others.  Such appeals are driving to rekindle the Nationalism theme that was so successful in the early days of NASA.  Yet by both being artificial, and by ignoring the other emerging socioeconomic powers, these attempts are misguided at best, and detrimental at worst.  Considering the changing world, one is quite justified in pushing hard on the relevance of national prestige and American exceptionalism as a justifying reason for human spaceflight.  I’m not saying it can’t – if it is to be a compelling reason, then we need to quit dancing around it and speak clearly and frankly about it.

A second challenge with Nationalism is the tendency to rely upon past paradigms and the dominance of the Government in all matters pertaining to human spaceflight.  Nationalism in implementation is the world of big dollar programs run from Washington and NASA field centers in partnership with the big aerospace firms, the latter whose numbers have decreased after several decades of acquisitions and mergers in the industry.  With NASA’s overall budget being flat in inflation-adjusted dollars for over a decade, and the coming tidal wave of fiscal pressures due to entitlement spending, one is fair to question whether we can afford big programs in the vein of Apollo.  The indication with the cancellation of Constellation is no, yet we’re getting mixed signals here with the Presidential direction to explore a near Earth asteroid by 2025 and press onto Mars sometime in the 2030’s, based on a rocket design that the President originally proposed to be decided in 2015.  This mixed signal is at the root of the confusion and uncertainty within the space community concerning the future role of NASA in human spaceflight.  Into this vacuum has stepped the Congress, which accelerated the rocket design selection by a few years by basically designing it in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.  The aforementioned system, comprised by the Space Launch System and the rechristened Orion capsule from Constellation, have all the appearances of a successor big-dollar program in the vein of all those that have come previously, now with the taint of pork barrel politics and jobs programs for congressional districts and states with aerospace concerns.  One is fair to ask, “what’s different this time that will permit the new system to survive, when Constellation didn’t?”  What is to prevent a repeat here?  Will we be right back where we are today in a few years?

Next time: Part 2.

Text © 2011, Joe Williams.  All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/Patty-Thomas

Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 1: Nationalism