Spaceflight Insider

OPINION: Tone down the political rhetoric around space issues

The Saturn V remains the most powerful rocket ever built. Its legacy belongs to John F. Kennedy, a Democrat. So is space a Republican issue? Photo Credit: NASA

The partisan divide in America is deep and frightening. There seems to be little, if any civil discourse between the two prevailing political ideologies of the day—liberal and conservative. And since President Obama canceled the Constellation Program, many on the right have attempted to claim the space platform as their own.

What they don’t realize is that they are sabotaging their own efforts. It is generally assumed that if a person supports a particular portion of a given political agenda, then he supports the entire platform. For example, if a person defends President Obama’s economic record, it is assumed that he therefore supports all that Obama, and indeed the entire Democratic Party stand for. Likewise, if a person defended George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, it is assumed that he stands for everything the Republican and Conservative platform stands for. Debate becomes virtually impossible when a single stance on a single issue inevitably results in being called a “right-wing fascist Confederate nut,” or a “godless left-wing Commie hippy drug-taking liberal.”

"We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard!" John F. Kennedy at Rice University on September 12, 1962. Photo Credit: NASA

“We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard!” John F. Kennedy at Rice University on September 12, 1962. Photo Credit: NASA

The nice thing about space is that it need not degenerate into such mindless talking-point arguments. Space is one thing Americans can come together on. Neil Armstrong planted the American flag on the Moon, not the elephant or the donkey. The Apollo Moon missions, the space shuttle, the smiling faces of such national heroes as John Glenn and Alan Shepard, these are points of pride for everyone in this country. They are America’s legacy. The thundering image of a manned rocket launch, though not uniquely American, is certainly a symbol of our country’s greatness. And the image of men walking on the Moon is still so far uniquely American.

Space has always received widespread bipartisan support, if not adequate funding. Even in the wake of the Challenger disaster, the space shuttle program has never been in serious danger of being canceled; only George W. Bush (a Republican) ordered that the shuttle be retired, and then only so that its successor could be developed. When Barack Obama canceled the Constellation program, he met with widespread resistance on both sides of the aisle.

Democrats and Republicans alike worked hard to find a way to salvage America’s presence in space. Faced with this broad outrage, Obama was forced to resurrect the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, now called the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, and to name at least some sort of destination for NASA; in this case an asteroid. Instead of the shuttle-derived Ares rockets, Orion will use the Space Launch System (SLS), which essentially combines the Ares I and Ares V into a single, huge rocket comparable to the Saturn V.

Artist's conception of the Space Launch System (SLS) on the pad. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s conception of the Space Launch System (SLS) on the pad. Image Credit: NASA

It’s not a very inspiring mission—if the word “mission” applies. We’ve gone from a bold program “to the Moon, Mars, and beyond” to one that even the ever-effervescent Charlie Duke decried: “I don’t even know what the new plan is.” It hard to argue with those who say Obama is trying to destroy the manned space program. His supporters say that with private industry providing flights to the ISS, NASA funds will be freed up to send missions beyond low Earth orbit. But with cost overruns, delays, design flaws, and the lack of a specific destination or function, the future does not look bright for Orion/SLS. But either way, it would be wiser to evaluate the situation based on facts rather than partisan emotionalism.

It’s possible that Mr. Obama does care about the space program, but has received poor advice and it’s too late to back away from what is clearly in hindsight the wrong decision. It’s possible he’s not trying to destroy the space program, but that it simply isn’t one of his priorities. Perhaps his approach to space issues simply reflects the country’s lack of interest.

Democrats might be hard-pressed to admit that sometimes Republicans know what they’re doing; Republicans would no doubt be irked at the suggestion that Democrats actually do love America and want to do the right thing for our country. But progress will only be made if we can tone down the shouting match and find common ground. Space is that common ground. Yes, the Democrats have had Barney Frank and Walter Mondale, steadfast opponents of all things space—but the Republicans have had Mitt Romney and Richard Nixon, certainly not friends of the space program. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush paid lip service to space activities–Clinton supported the ISS and was a self-proclaimed space enthusiast, but dissolved the National Space Council, and although Bush ordered the Constellation program, did not budget to accommodate it.

Artist's conception of the Orion spacecraft including the service module. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s conception of the Orion spacecraft including the service module. Image Credit: NASA

In today’s political climate, the perception of the politicians, radio talk show hosts, and the most vocal activists is that people tend to align themselves with everything on their party’s ticket. In the real world, of course, people’s opinions vary from issue to issue, but stereotypically, Conservative Republicans always favor low taxes for the wealthy, a strong military, no gay marriage, and no abortion, while Liberal Democrats always favor big government, entitlement programs, and environmental regulations.

Of course, individuals aren’t really like that, but the media has polarized those issues, and through them the politicians have received the message that each party has its unshakeable platforms. What one party supports the other must oppose and vice versa. A new president must erase his predecessor’s legacy. The perception of a party’s platform decides a candidate’s ticket. That is where it becomes dangerous for space to become a partisan issue. If Democratic candidates come to perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the Democratic mandate is to end space exploration, then it shall be so. This cannot be a good thing, and Republicans need to bear this in mind.


The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group


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Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Reader Comments

I disagree – I would actually argue that more partisan divide would be good for space. Let me explain my rationality (I will admit, your mileage may vary)

The current argument isn’t R vs D – its Republican supporters of Oldspace letting mixing their disagreements with space and Obama, and making comments (which, BTW, Collin, in an article calling for greater bi-partisan, but then calling the president wrong – not helping yourself). Democratic people will react as you can imagine.

If it was truly getting to the realms of partisan debate, you would see it frequently on Fox, or on MSNBC. And you don’t. So, as I said, its not partisan divide – its really the fact that space is being ignored by large swaths of the country. Thats not bi-partisan in a large scale sense

But, if you could get Bill O’Reily (or Rush Limbaugh or pick your favorite conservative commentator) railing about space every night, and the equivalent on the left (Rachel Maddow, or Lawrence O’Donnell) railing on space every night – I would argue that would be a good thing. Then, at least there is a growing voice of people who are starting to care about space, beyond the “mile wide inch deep” that is unsustainable.

Thank you for the reply, Ferris. You do make some good points. As for my calling the President wrong–I was making a space policy point, not a partisan one. I have my issues with this President, particularly on space matters, but I’m actually strongly Democrat.

It may not have intended to be a partisan comment, but in a piece like this, it can be read as a partisan comment. Just an FYI

Collin, perhaps it would be useful to consider something that you had brought up in a previous article, H.R. 1446 the Reasserting American Leadership in Space Act. As a Democrat living under the smokestacks of the Ford Rouge plant here in “The D”, I was always pleased with the bipartisan support NASA received and was grateful for the efforts of Sen. Shelby (R. Al) and Sen. Nelson (D. Fla.) (although Sen. Shelby wasn’t very popular in these parts during the GM/Chrysler “bail-out hearings”. Serious space exploration requires long-term, multi-Administration planning with stable secure funding. The “on again, off again” approach of NASA lurching back and forth from election cycle to election cycle with no clear-cut long-term goal is wasteful, inefficient, and no doubt demoralizing to NASA personnel. Partisanship will only serve to make the situation worse. “Our side is in power, so let’s de-fund NASA.” “Now OUR SIDE is in power, so fully fund NASA and build a new launch system and advance planetary science too.” Our side is back, so de-fund NASA again.” H.R. 1446 not only calls for a return to the Moon, but attempts to take some of the politics out of the situation. It calls for making the leadership more professional and established like that of the F.B.I. with a directorship more removed from the political sphere. An advisory board composed of former astronauts, members of the academic community, and members of the aerospace business community would be established to formulate achievable, important, clear-cut long-term goals. An attempt would be made to create a more stable, dependable source of funding so as to prevent large expenditures being made on programs which are then cancelled in the next election cycle. As you so accurately pointed out in your article Collin, there is little chance of any meaningful reform as set forth in H.R. 1446 taking place. Partisan venom spraying in the current scorched-earth political climate will continue to the detriment of space exploration. Oldspace versus Newspace, Republican versus Democrat, and space exploration in the middle of “no-man’s land”. Go ahead boys, lock and load!

Karol – I am sorry, but I see HR 1446 as not either being effective, nor do I see it as enabling NASA to be more successful.


Yeah, cuz the Commercial Crony Program is all above board and legit right?

I like that; “Commercial Crony Program”, very fitting !!
Just wondering why NASA is dragging their feet on making an announcement ?

It’s difficult to tone down the rhetoric when confronted with fiscal fraud and non-performance of the magnitude of Constellation, SLS and Orion.

I agree that there should be more bipartisanship, and that one of the regrettable side-effects of killing Constellation was to make spaceflight more of a partisan issue than heretofore. The problem with this analysis is that the President was not wrong. Don’t forget that Constellation originally started out as a vision remarkably similar to Obama’s: use existing rockets to launch a “constellation” of smaller spacecraft to multiple destinations. Two Administrations have recently come to the same conclusion: the United States can no longer afford the Apollo model and must move to something that gets more results for less money — and, regrettably, would therefore employ fewer people. In both cases, supporters of the Apollo model managed to displace the new vision — with the result that we have continued to study (and generally fail to build) giant rockets rather than explore space with astronauts.

It was probably for the wrong reasons, but Obama made exactly the right call on human spaceflight (as Bush originally did before him), and if either had prevailed, we might well have a lunar base, asteroid missions, and be well on the way to Mars. Unfortunately, the coalition of mostly Southern politicians and NASA prevailed, and we are little closer to any of these goals than we were a decade ago.

— Donald

quote from article: “Instead of the shuttle-derived Ares rockets, Orion will use the Space Launch System (SLS), which essentially combines the Ares I and Ares V into a single, huge rocket comparable to the Saturn V.”

Actually, this is backwards. The Ares I was a completely new development — a new liquid stage on top of a single SRB, designed to transport Orion to LEO. The Ares V was arguably Shuttle-derived and the new SLS is an “Ares V Light.”

The SLS is entirely Shuttle-derived — it uses four SSME (RS-25) in its core (LOX-LH) stage and two Shuttle-equivalent SRBs to make up a single vehicle that can launch about 70 metric tons to LEO. It may ultimately be expanded into a 120 metric ton Saturn V-equivalent.

This piece continues the mythology that the Vision for Space Exploration was underfunded by Congress. NASA got all the money it was promised for the VSE in the five years after the Vision was announced. That Ares/Constellation was behind schedule is unquestioned, but so what? We would have been on the Moon a few years after the target date of 2020 (whereas now, we’ll never get there.)

As for bipartisanship, the VSE was approved as the official strategic direction for the nation’s civil space program TWICE (under the NASA Authorizations of 2005 and 2008). Each bill was passed by large bipartisan majorities, under a Congress under the control of both Democratic and Republican parties. This current administration unilaterally terminated the VSE, without consulting anyone (of either party) in Congress. It was for this reason that Congress specified the technical details of SLS — because we were about to lose the Shuttle technical infrastructure forever.

Paul, thanks for your comment.

I suppose we could get bogged down in the technical aspects of the Ares rockets and the SLS–I would say the Ares I was shuttle-derived because it used an SRB–but the point was that the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 ordered a single launch system to carry out BEO missions instead of the two Ares rockets.

As to your other point, let me quote from the Augustine Committee report:
“Since Constellation’s inception, the program has faced a mismatch between funding and program content. Even when the program was first announced, its timely execution depended on funds becoming available from the retirement of the Space Shuttle (in 2010) and the decommissioning of the ISS (in early 2016). Since those early days, the program’s long-term budget outlook has been steadily reduced below the level expected by NASA. The Exploration Systems Architecture Study of 2005 assumed the availability of a steady-state human spaceflight budget for exploration of about $10 billion per year. In the subsequent FY 2009 and FY 2010 budgets, the long-term projections for funding have decreased. The FY 2010 President’s Budget Submittal suggests a steady-state funding of about $7 billion per year.”

“The FY 2010 President’s Budget Submittal suggests a steady-state funding of about $7 billion per year.”

A key point “President’s Budget Submittal”, not Congress’s.

Congress (in the absence of executive branch leadership) has been (on a bipartisan basis) trying to lead. But that is like trying to push a rope.

While I supported neither rocket, Ares-V was a better design than SLS. It used the same main engines as the Delta-IV. With SLS, using modified SSMEs, we have to maintain (expensive) infrastructure to support both the Delta-IV engines and the SSMEs. With Ares-V, we only had to maintain one.

On the other hand, it looks like the upper stages of the Delta-IV and the SLS are likely to end up using the same engine.

— Donald

Actually that is incorrect.

While the Ares-5 design went through a change to RS-68’s (Delta IV) for a period that proved to be impractical. The engine performance was too low. The design then returned to the RS-25’s (Shuttle).

The Augustine report is NOT the gold standard for truth here. They were after a specific result and they obtained it.

Paul, Your absolutely right here, The Augustine report had an agenda and they achieved it. Anyone who has read the report can see that, well maybe not. I received a copy of it from my employer, and most of their concerns could have been easily remedied.

William Mellberg

For the record, the Saturn V was not “the most powerful rocket ever built” as per your caption. That distinction belongs to the Soviet N-1 Moon rocket. Its 1st stage produced roughly 10,000,000 pounds of thrust versus 7,600,000 for the Saturn V. Of course, each of the four N-1 launches ended in failure with the 1st stages exploding. Thus, the Saturn V was the most powerful “operational” rocket ever built.

One other comment about the Saturn V and your caption. You mention that its legacy belongs to John F. Kennedy, a Democrat. Actually, its legacy belongs to Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican. The F-1 engine and the original Saturn I project were both initiated during the Eisenhower Administration. Note the comments about the F-1 on Harrison Schmitt’s website:

Dr. Schmitt, who served in the U.S. Senate (R-New Mexico) after he walked on the Moon (Apollo 17), cites the bipartisanship that led to Apollo and America’s space leadership.

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