Gop Should Seize Space

Written by Kenneth Silber on Sunday May 10, 2009

Space policy has seen its share of political realignments and role reversals over the decades. From the fifties into the seventies, the Democrats were the party of space enthusiasm, while the Republicans tended to fret about the cost and purpose of it all. John F. Kennedy decided to send a man to the moon; Dwight Eisenhower had preferred a modest space program emphasizing satellite development. Lyndon Johnson put a huge amount of money into space, much of it landing in Texas. Richard Nixon scaled back NASA’s budget and ambitions, noting that the U.S. couldn’t do everything in space at once.

By the early eighties, the political planets were realigning. The Reagan administration set in motion plans for a manned space station. Democrats shrugged; Cold War technology was no longer their thing. As that decade ended, George H.W. Bush called for a long effort to return to the moon and go to Mars. He showed little follow up, and the Democratic Congress shelved the plan. A few years later, Bill Clinton dismantled the White House Space Council, a clear sign of disinterest, while Al Gore revamped the space station as an international project that would help keep Russian scientists out of the weapons business.

George W. Bush re-tasked NASA for a return to the moon and eventual exploration of Mars. However, Bush was quiet about the back-to-the-moon emphasis after getting it into NASA’s budget, and in recent years neither Democrats nor Republicans have shown much fervor for space projects. Perhaps that was inevitable while the nation has faced more pressing problems of terrorism, war, soaring deficits and most recently the financial crisis and recession. President Obama has ordered a review of NASA’s policies, but generally has had little to say about space before or since taking office, and there is little indication that space is going to be an important part of the Obama administration’s agenda.

Thus, the stage is set for space to be largely ignored in Washington for the next few years. If so, that will be a lost opportunity for Republicans and conservatives. For a party and ideology in need of new ideas, space policy offers an unexplored (if not final) frontier. Granted, space is a niche in the policy world, one that neither could nor should take center stage from issues such as the economy and health care. But it’s a niche that could help build some of the right’s strengths and mitigate some of its weaknesses.

Let us count the ways:

1. What war on science? All too often, conservatives and Republicans have lent credibility to the notion that they are broadly hostile to science. I will not delve here into such fraught issues as stem-cell research and “intelligent design.” Suffice it to say that a right that shows an active interest in space-related science and technology will be harder to caricature as the anti-science party. It would also make for a nice contrast with various left-wing activists who have shown growing hostility to space projects (that involve technologies they dislike, say, or the prospect of humans defiling the solar system).

2. Beyond big government. During its Apollo glory days, NASA served virtually as a model government agency; in later decades, it often inadvertently demonstrated the limitations of centralized bureaucracy (having a huge budget and well-defined national mission were ingredients of its early success). In recent years, a nascent private space industry has spearheaded promising activity in fields such as sub-orbital tourism. A worthwhile conservative cause would be ensuring that government is limited but effective in its space activities, and that its regulations and subsidies do not stifle the emerging space economy.

3. The national interest. The Gore-driven blending of U.S. and Russian space activities has led to a worrisome reliance on Vladimir Putin’s Russia to provide rocket services as the U.S. shuttle fleet lumbers into obsolescence. Ensuring that international space collaborations serve, rather than damage, U.S. national interests would be a useful and politically astute task for space-oriented conservatives.

4. Embracing the future. Space is rife with marvelous possibilities that may take some time to actualize. For instance, space solar power (collecting solar energy in space and beaming it to Earth) may resolve a complex web of energy and environmental problems a few decades from now. People may live and work on the moon around the time that today’s toddlers are graduating from college. By working toward such possibilities in realistic, incremental ways, conservatives can show that they are forward-thinking and optimistic without veering into the techno-utopianism of some space enthusiasts. Implicitly, this would also convey a message that conservatism itself is going to be around for a good long time.

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