Bush Space Policy: Will America (Finally) Go Somewhere Once Again?

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The Bush Administration is nearly finished with an internal effort to develop a new space policy for America. The process has been performed in a quiet cloistered manner, out of public view. The longer this process has gone on, the more interested parties want to know what is going on. Speculation has started to mount to the point that certain specific venues for "an announcement" by the President are circulating inside and outside of the White House.

Behind Closed Doors

On many occasions during the few months Congress has queried the Administration - in the person of Sean O'Keefe - as to what the White House is doing with regard to space policy. These questions gained a new urgency when the CAIB report came out and called for NASA to have a central vision - their analysis and conclusion being that NASA currently has no such vision.

Despite the repeated attempts via questions in hearings, letters, and other avenues, to get O'Keefe to go into detail about ongoing internal Administration space policy debates, he has declined to do so. Instead, O'Keefe simply acknowledged the existence of an internal space policy activity, given a thumbnail sketch of the participants, and advised everyone involved to stay tuned. Otherwise, very little is known as to what is actually under discussion.

Feeling like they have been left out of the loop, members of Congress have sought to gain insight into these internal deliberations. One Senator, Fritz Hollings, was impatient enough that he even introduced a bill to create a national space commission which would give NASA a policy and a vision.

Meanwhile, many space pundits have interpreted this lack of public detail from the White House as being indicative of a process that is unfocused, confused, or stalled. Everyone in Washington has apparently gotten used to the modus operandi in effect during the Clinton years when you could count on the policy development process to be porous and constantly revealed via leaks and trial balloons. Given this preferred mindset, and absent such leaks, the absence of evidence is seen by those space pundits as being evidence of absence. This is an incorrect assumption.

The reason why there are so few crumbs marking a trail is the manner with which this White House formulates policy. Like it or not, this White House only allows internal policy development efforts to become visible when they decide the time is right- and not a moment before.

The firewall is not totally impervious, however, and some details have emerged.

The Process

There are currently several scenarios being worked at the White House. These scenarios are the end product of several months of work on the part of a small group composed of OMB, NASA, DoD and White House personnel and represent alternate proposed paths for America's space policy.

Staff from OMB and NASA are involved in developing a timeline and a budget for each. Once this task is complete, it is expected that the scenarios will then go to Vice President Cheney for review, and then on to President Bush who will make the final decision as to which (if any) scenario he will adopt - and then put forth as America's "new vision in space".

Dueling Venues

Much speculation has arisen as to the timing - and venue wherein any announcement about a new space policy might be made by the President. Everyone seems to see a different fortuitous moment where their preferred flavor of space policy would be best announced. Such preferences often take on a life of their own as the circulate around town since they make intrinsic sense from a particular perspective (even if they are factually in error).

Many see the celebrations on 17 December 2003 at Kitty Hawk on the 100th anniversary of powered flight as a natural place to make an announcement. Others see the State of the Union speech in late January 2004 and its unfortunate - but relevant closeness to the first anniversary of the Columbia accident (as well as those of the Challenger and Apollo 1 accidents) as an equally natural venue.

Word has it that an attempt was made to have all of the analysis and recommendation formulation in place by 30 November which is coincident with the budget "passback" (comments/revisions by NASA of the Administration's proposed NASA's FY 2005 budget) to OMB which traditionally happens around Thanksgiving.

Some in the White House reportedly feel that this may not happen after all - and that this might preclude having enough time to formulate a cogent presentation for the President such that he feels comfortable with making a decision- and then feels comfortable announcing it at a rather solemn moment.

POTUS Will Make the Call

There is one important point here - one that Administration sources are very clear on: the President of the United States will be the final arbiter of any decision to focus, speed up, or slow down American space activities. If the President hasn't made up his mind and is not comfortable with the manner and venue of this announcement, he simply won't make it - regardless of what historical moments that might be missed.

If the stars don't align in time to support a 17 December rollout, the next obvious opportunity (for those seeking poignant venues) is the State of the Union speech in late January. This White House doesn't pass on a good photo op when it sees or needs one (aircraft carriers etc.).

Many in the Administration, while admitting that presentation (i.e. venue) is important, take great pains to note that the White House will not roll something out until the President himself decides the time is right. As such, the President may simply decide to announce a new space policy at a later date, venue of his own making. Something this important is certain to have an intrinsic ability to make whatever venue is chosen a poignant one.

The Benefits of Having a Plan

Regardless of venue and timing, once this "new vision" is unveiled it will likely make a discussion of what NASA is doing and where it is going much less tedious of a task to accomplish. Once such a policy is made known all of the unknowns will start to collapse into discussions where words such as 'yes' and 'no' and answers to questions such as 'how much', 'where', and 'when' can begin to be answered.

If indeed the White House will enunciate a clear national vision for America in space, then this could (and should, by definition) provide a standard context against which NASA can map things such as OSP, ISS, etc. Moreover, it will allow Congress to make its views known (one way or another) against a common backdrop that does not change from one member to another or from one committee to another.

The Path

So just what is the vision we are all going to learn about? Details are sketchy given the Bush White House's propensity for playing such "predecisional" efforts very close to their chest. What has emerged is process of developing a focused scenario of what to do, where to go, and how to do it. The scenarios under review are intended to represent something that is seen as having true value to America - to its economy, to innovation, to education, to the things that serve to advance the interests and security of the U.S.

During the process, a number of scenarios were debated. A few were somewhat expansive. Others focused on maintaining on the status quo. Yet, other scenarios represented paths more outward looking than NASA has as an assignment today, yet constrained by fiscal reality.

Whatever the President decides, it is clear by virtue of how the process worked that there will likely not be a multi-national effort such as the ISS (although there may well be opportunities to collaborate down the road). Nor will it be an "Apollo 2" i.e. a large national mandate with lavish funding driven towards a specific event in a specific place by external threats or motivations. In other words no "flags and footprints". Rather, it will, as mentioned above, serve to advance a wide variety of technologies and skills from the prime perspective of the needs and interests of the United States.

Destination

Many have called for a specific destination to be named - one that will pull or push technology development - rather than Sean O'Keefe's currently espoused approach wherein NASA seeks to develop technology and then see what destination opportunities it might provide down the road. Word from knowledgeable sources would suggest that an overt Kennedy-esque commitment to send humans to Mars is simply not in the cards. Indeed, Mars (as an option) is not on the table at the present time.

Rather, the focus seems to be coalescing around sending humans back to the Moon and to the establishment of a inner solar system infrastructure that would allow decisions to where to go next (e.g. Mars, asteroids, etc.) to be made once certain technological and operational unknowns are better understood.

The Moon is seen as a destination that is easily attainable where complex operations on a another planet can be field tested. Whether the hardware that is developed has specific direct applicability to Mars or other locations depends from one system to another. However the operational knowledge to be gleaned from operation in a hazardous environment will invaluable in preparing humans to go elsewhere beyond the Moon.

This is, to a great extent, picking up where we left off when America walked away from the Moon in the early 1970s. Some would say that going back to the Moon is little more than revisiting a past accomplishment. Been there, done that, so to speak. Others would say that we have unfinished business on the Moon which we need to get back to.

Some would say that going back to the Moon is just a baby step when we should be making an adult step (to Mars). Others would say that building an incremental infrastructure on the Moon and then moving outward will allow more things to be done with less risk down the road than a one shot program focused only on one destination.

Underlying Philosophy

As mentioned above, the Bush Administration is wary of another "flag and footprints" effort. Nor will it be a corporate welfare effort where the net result is billions of tax dollars flowing inevitably to Boeing and/or Lockheed Martin. As part of doing things a bit differently, an attempt will be made to do this differently. While major aerospace companies will inevitably be involved, hope is given that new players will emerge or be encouraged to participate and that innovation and new technologies can result as well.

There is also a fiscal reality that will temper what is done. There will not be a huge funding surge ala Apollo. While some additional funds will be needed, there will be more of a focus on a specific time frame - 10 years or so, wherein a specific list of accomplishments will be attained and a funding profile will be developed that allows things to proceed in a methodical fashion that is not too much different than how NASA Is doing things now.

Near Term Activities

How will this all play out in the near term? Allow me to speculate.

There would likely be some study money (perhaps $50-100 million) in the FY 2005 budget. NASA has already set aside funding for NExT activities wherein the NASA Space Architect's office could start to take a Presidential vision and translate it into a cascading series of requirements, goals, objectives, etc. much in the way that the one page Level 1 requirements for OSP then became the more detailed Level 2 requirements, etc.

This would all lead to a revision in the current ISTP (Integrated Space Transportation Plan) so as to show how the things that NASA has, and those which it is developing, facilitate the achievement of the President's new vision. Sean O'Keefe has sought to address Congressional concerns that the OSP is being developed too fast or in absence of clear overall strategy by saying that no funding decisions will be made until August 2004 at the earliest.

As such, one would expect that the Space Architect's office will be a beehive of activity as it fleshes out the President's directives into a plan wherein something like the OSP has a clear role and function. If NASA were to build an OSP simply to support the ISS you would hope that the design effort would focus on the things needed just for that mission.

If, however, the OSP is to be part of a modular, evolutionary capability that supports an Earth-Moon transportation system, then you'd expect other things to be added to basic requirements before the actual design process begins.

Given that a window of opportunity opens in August 2004 for OSP contractual decision, one would expect that some sort of revised ISTP and implementation plan (ala the Shuttle and ISS Implementation plans for the CAIB report's recommendations) would appear in Summer 2004. Prior to that, one would expect that some sort of initial modifications to ongoing OSP efforts based on the President's decision would be provided to contractors preparing initial designs as soon as possible.

Again, as I speculate further, one would expect that this summer, a convergence of OSP and ISTP planning would allow whatever funds and direction for advanced human exploration which are present in the FY2005 budget to allow further work to get off to a quick start on 1 October 2004.

Opportunity

As such, unless the President decides to pass on this opportunity, we can expect historical and emotional resonances in the coming weeks: a new push to explore space framed as having been inspired by a century of progress since the Wright brothers first left Earth's surface under power and/or a recommitment to the cause of the human exploration of space coincident with the first anniversary of Columbia's loss, the 18th anniversary of Challenger's demise, and the 37th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire.

Then again, the President could decide to pick a different time and place, and chose another theme.

The notion of what we should do in space is the natural outcome of a catharsis such as the Columbia accident. People are poised to be receptive to these options right now - and will be for another several months - but after that I fear a window of opportunity may start to evaporate.

Regardless of where the words are finally said and what the backdrop is, I can't imagine that the President will walk away from this opportunity - one framed by tragedy and commitment and inspired by history - and perhaps just a dash of destiny.

Meanwhile, we'll all have to stay tuned and wait for George Bush. It's his call.


Related policy links

  • 12 May 2002: Let's Stop Going in Circles - And Go Somewhere, Keith Cowing, SpaceRef
  • 28 October 2003: The Outstretched Empty Hand of American Space Efforts, Op Ed, Dennis Wingo, SpaceRef
  • 28 October 2003: Presidential review on space policy heading to closure, Frank Sietzen Jr., SpaceLift Washington/SpaceRef
  • Related OSP, ISTP links

  • 23 September 2003: NASA Orbital Space Plane Level 2 Requirements: Executive Summary
  • 23 September 2003: NASA Completes Orbital Space Plane Design Review
  • 29 July 2003: NASA Presolicitation Notice: Design, Development, and Delivery of an Orbital Space Plane
  • 2 July 2003: NASA Solar System Exploration Roadmap 2003 Online
  • 8 May 2003: Hearing Charter: NASA's Integrated Space Transportation Plan and Orbital Space Plane Program
  • 8 May 2003: NASA's Future Space Transportation Plan Lacks Clear Goals and Vision, House Science Committee
  • 30 April 2003: Report on Top-Level Assessment of Use of Apollo Systems for ISS
  • 6 March 2003: Orbital Space Plane (OSP) Level I Requirements Program Interpretation Document (Text version)

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