Drivers of American Space Policy

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We began our "Scuttle the Shuttle" series with the question: how can we use history to better understand the recent decision to end shuttle missions?

Robert MacGregor kicked us off with a long set of suggestions in an e-mail to me. He suggested we should think about the peculiarities of 1960s politics, about the jobs created by aerospace spending, and about the narrative of the "space race." Instead of exploring these bigger narratives, I chose to highlight a side note that Bob made, in which he attempted to explain how naive narratives of colonization with a decidedly progressive bent may encourage Apollo conspiracy theorists.

Erik Conway, historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, took a moment out of his well-deserved celebration over the release of Merchants of Doubt---co-written with Naomi Oreskes---to take me to task in the most productive of fashions. Erik shows exactly how many fascinating angles I passed over. Consider this bit from the end of his comment:

To historicize the Shuttle decision by comparing it to earlier colonization attempts is to impose a historical narrative that conceals more than it reveals. But the decisions made by several administrations to try to replace the Shuttle were shot through with conflicts over the militarization and / or weaponization of space, over whether we even need to continue putting humans into space given the growing capabilities of robotic explorers, over the proper role of government in space activities, and with interagency rivalry.  Too, there’s a large historical question hovering around the willingness of government agencies to misrepresent the true cost of space technology to Congress and the White House.

The Cold War, weapons platforms, and the growing grip of neoliberalism inside in the Beltway have been far more important drivers of American space policy. These are where the interesting historical questions about Shuttle replacement lie.

Wow. Keep reading for Erik's entire note, including a nice brief summary and analysis of the shuttle decision. It's worth reading.



The previous post suggested that we should frame the decision to replace the Space Shuttle, America’s space truck, in the larger narratives of white colonization of the non-Caucasian world.  I’m going to reject that set of narratives out of hand, because it was never the policy of the U.S. Government to colonize.  The Apollo program was approved by the Kennedy administration, and was continued in the Johnson administration, as a Cold War technical stunt, intended to demonstrate American technological mastery. While many people within NASA (Von Braun, of course) saw Apollo as a prelude to human expansion off Earth, that’s not why it was funded.

President Nixon cancelled Apollo in 1970, shortly before the flight of Apollo 13. He had campaigned as a fiscal conservative, devoted to balanced budgets, and Apollo made for a high-profile budget reduction. Apollo had only briefly found majority public support, for a few months around the Apollo 11 landing, and after that its public standing plunged. Less than half of all voting Americans thought Apollo was worth their money, presaging a long-standing political problem for space advocates. Americans often have grand space dreams, but aren’t willing to pay for them. Nixon saw a great deal of political risk in continuing Apollo, and little in killing it.

It took another 2 years, and, as Tom Heppenheimer has pointed out, a deepening aerospace industry recession, before Nixon approved Apollo’s replacement, the Space Shuttle. It was, quite famously, a Shuttle-to-Nowhere, because Nixon didn’t approve the companion space station. In fact, the Shuttle he approved was a politically compromised vehicle.  It was not the highest performance Shuttle concept; it also wasn’t the lowest operating cost Shuttle concept. It was the lowest development cost concept—in other words, Nixon accepted higher operating costs, knowing his own administration wouldn’t be the one paying those costs.

The Shuttle first flew in 1981. The first administration to decide to replace the Shuttle was Reagan’s. By 1984, it was already clear that the Shuttle’s high operating cost and unreliability was undermining that administration’s own space fantasies.   Reagan sold America on “strategic defense” from space—“Star Wars.” As both I and Andrew Butrica have already written, the Shuttle’s inability to deliver low cost space access set the Reagan administration off in search of cheaper launchers. The National Aerospace Plane was one of those proposed replacements. Sold at a $3 billion price tag, its cost estimate ballooned over $30 billion before it was cancelled.

But the effort to replace the Shuttle continued. The George H. W. Bush administration embarked on the “National Launch System” development, cancelled in the Clinton administration. The Clinton administration fixed on a program called “Orbital Space Plane,” cancelled early in the George W. Bush administration. And, of course, the George W. Bush administration set out on the Constellation program to return to the Moon.

It remains to be seen whether Constellation lives or dies, though I personally hope it dies. The Constellation architecture was a political design, intended to maintain the Shuttle’s own Congressional alliance. (Ask yourself “why do the Powerpoint pictures of the Constellation rockets have a big orange tank in the middle?” The orange foam was the result of a mistake in the Shuttle design having to do with the boil-off rate of the cryogenic fuels. Why keep it?? It’s a visible symbol of political continuity on Capitol Hill, that’s why). That alliance has kept the US going around in circles for the last thirty years, but seems incapable of propelling NASA beyond low Earth orbit. If there’s to be a human future in space, the Shuttle’s political alliance needs to be either expanded or replaced with one more powerful.

To historicize the Shuttle decision by comparing to earlier colonization attempts is to impose a historical narrative that conceals more than it reveals. But the decisions made by several administrations to try to replace the Shuttle were shot through with conflicts over the militarization and / or weaponization of space, over whether we even need to continue putting humans into space given the growing capabilities of robotic explorers, over the proper role of government in space activities, and with interagency rivalry.  Too, there’s a large historical question hovering around the willingness of government agencies to misrepresent the true cost of space technology to Congress and the White House.

The Cold War, weapons platforms, and the growing grip of neoliberalism inside in the Beltway have been far more important drivers of American space policy. These are where the interesting historical questions about Shuttle replacement lie.

1 comments:

This is a very good point, that the shuttle decision was at the nexus of a whole host of Cold War issues. Something people often forget is that the Shuttle blurred the civilian/military divide that had been part of the foundation of NASA since its inception in 1958.

I wasn't trying to impose a historical narrative of colonization. I think that has already been done by others. It's what I like to refer to as the "final frontier thesis" (cue Star Trek theme). That is, a common justification narrative for space exploration is drawing parallels to the age of exploration, and the inevitability of human colonization. The number of NASA picture books that mention Columbus and/or Magellan is astronomical (no pun intended). I was merely poking a whole in this narrative by mentioning the Viking colonization attempt, but we could just as easily poke holes by pointing out the Americas were already populated by advanced civilizations.

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