If anyone thinks that the Obama administration space policy has been successful, he should simply read this tweet from the well-known astrophysicist and Director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, Neil Degrasse Tyson: "Has the first person to set foot on Mars been born yet, you ask? Yup. In Beijing."
If the next President does decide to build a space-based missile-defense system, he will, as usual, be faced with a huge political uproar from people who, in a disconnect of logic, somehow believe that if the US is undefended, no-one will then wish to attack it. He will also be faced by the question of how to deploy a large number of orbital interceptors at a reasonable cost. But if the US is to stay defended, it is necessary to deploy them quickly -- at the very most within four years.
In an interview in December 2011, Republican Presidential candidate, Governor Mitt Romney, called his fellow Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's ideas on space policy "zany"-- in particular two concepts Gingrich has embraced over the years: "mirrors to light highways at night" and a lunar colony.
What Gingrich understands -- most of the time at least -- and what Romney has yet to learn, is that NASA's civil program and the US military's space programs are intertwined technologically, politically and financially.
To anyone who has not studied the technology, large mirrors in space may sound fantastic; but work on large, ultra-lightweight space structures has been rapidly proceeding. This technology will likely become available for countless applications -- such as highway mirrors, or very large antennas or space-based solar power -- early in the next decade. The possibilities have been revealed by the former head of NASA's Advanced Concepts Office, Ivan Bekey, in his book, Advanced Space System Concepts and Technologies 2010-2030, published by the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics. Moreover, while NASA is a civilian agency, most of its senior personnel have traditionally come from the military or from the aerospace industry; its present NASA administrator is a retired Marine Corps General.
Romney's attack on Gingrich's support for a lunar colony is even less justified, even though Gingrich did not handle he question as well as he might have in the recent, televised Florida debate. The Moon, as the late expert on space, Dr. Klaus Heiss, used to say, is the "Gibraltar" point of space -- the place from which the access from Earth to the rest of the Solar System can be controlled, just as Gibraltar was the point from which The British Empire was able to control naval access from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and vice versa.
Building a civilian base on the Moon as a control point, or to make sure that no other country could use it to control access to the solar system, was always a long-term goal of US space policy --at least until the Obama administration came along. In 2005 and again in 2007, massive bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate voted for going back to the Moon, "this time to stay," as President George H.W. Bush said in 1989.
So what would an effective, post-Obama American space policy look like? Like an effective defense policy, it would start with a top-to-bottom overhaul of America's wildly counterproductive Federal Acquisition Regulations. Further, if anything is worse than America's procurement regulations, it is the way the Executive and Legislative branches have wrecked the budget process.
To fix what has gone wrong with space policy a new administration would begin with a renewed commitment to US military space systems. Improving the US Global Positioning Systems (GPS) -- including a renewed commitment to making the next generation of GPS-3 satellites the most reliable, accurate and survivable satellite navigation system available. It would also mean a renewed investment in robust and well-protected military communications satellites and a credible program for new military weather satellites.
An effective space policy would continue to fund both the so-called "exquisite" high-quality Keyhole spy satellites and the less-costly, commercial, remote sensing satellites which can provide lots of less -high-quality imagery at much lower prices. The high: low mix of space-based optical intelligence-gathering systems is the most promising way to insure that US will have the imagery it needs -- on time and without breaking the bank.
Early Warning and Missile Defense satellites will have to be upgraded and funded. Fortunately the long delayed and over-budget Space Based Infrared (SBIR) satellites are now being launched. The first of the large ones that are stationed in Geosynchronous Orbit 22.000 miles above the surface of the Earth was launched and last year, and others replacing the old Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites are going to be going up soon. These satellites, with their extremely sensitive heat-detecting sensors, give the US military early warning of just about any type of ballistic missile or rocket launch anywhere in the world. Sometime during the next four years the Defense Department will have to begin work on the technology for the next generation of these satellites, the ones that will have to be deployed in the late 2020s or early 2030s.
Space-based missile-tracking is controversial due to cost, current uncertainties about its effectiveness and to the way that the technology, if successful, would pave the way for improved versions of the space-based missile defense systems that in 1993 were abandoned by the Clinton administration.
NASA, as well as the Defense Department, have wanted to build some sort of low-cost launch vehicle for many years. Tragically, thanks to erratic political leadership, the bright promise represented by the pioneering DC-X Clipper Graham project of the early 1990s has been lost. The DC-X program demonstrated that a suborbital prototype reusable rocket could be built and flown for the relatively modest price of about $80 million.
Since then, NASA and the Defense Department have spent billions on programs that never put a payload, let alone a human, into space. The latest example of this kind of waste was the cancellation of the Ares 1 and Ares 5 launch vehicles, which were killed as part of the Obama administration's elimination of the Constellation's return to the Moon program. An effective space policy would therefore choose not to disturb the current space-launch vehicle effort and would continue to support the much maligned Space Launch System (SLS). Wasting more time and money trying to cancel the SLS and come up with something new is exactly the sort of counterproductive decision that has put America into its current sad position.
Unfortunately Gingrich's idea of making the Moon Colony into a U.S. state goes directly against the Outer Space Treaty [OST] of 1967, Article 2 of which states, "Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by an other means."
The OST may be an artifact of the 1960s, negotiated between President Lyndon Johnson's American and Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union, but it is still in force and considered the principal pillar of international space law. It has countless flaws, especially in that It fails to provide secure protection for private property in space: Article ! states that space activities "shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind." Getting rid of the OST as Gingrich proposes may be a good idea, but it should be approached in a thoughtful and deliberative manner.
If Gingrich's enthusiasm for new technologies sounds "unstatesmanlike," the same judgment unfortunately holds true for all politicians who get too far ahead of the public Vice President Al Gore and Vice-President Dan Quayle, for instance, tried -- and failed -- to get the government to develop low cost space launch systems.
Gingrich's desire to bring commercial enterprises into the space launch development business may, in the end, work better than the government-controlled programs that Gore and Quayle proposed. Sadly, the Obama administration's clumsy attempt to do what Gingrich has long supported in the low-cost space launch development area has not generated much support on Capitol Hill. The appropriations committees cut the Obama request for commercial space launch development by more than half.
The large "Lacrosse" radar satellites have been in use since the early 1980s and have proven their worth many times over, but the technology is old and the Pentagon's attempts to build other types of radar-imaging satellites have failed. An effective space policy would organize a small group of real experts to find out why these radar satellite projects failed and what should be done to insure that future projects succeed.
NASA, as well as the Defense Department, have wanted to build some sort of low-cost launch vehicle for many years. Tragically, thanks to erratic political leadership, the bright promise represented by the pioneering DC-X Clipper Graham
NASA's private sector's so-called "commercial" support initiative for Earth-to-Space transport is worth continuing, in spite of the problems that Obama's NASA appointees have had in getting the program funded. While the program shows great promise, depending on civilians to provide 100% of America's space launch services is just as bad as depending on NASA and the DoD to do everything.. A balance is needed and there is no reason why a balance cannot be achieved, unless a new administration decides to yet again throw everything into turmoil.
As to the rest of space policy, it seems obvious that the Obama administration's attempt to build support for a manned mission to an asteroid has failed. The US is still many years away from a decision to send people to Mars. Which brings us back to the need for a Moon base. It is much needed. Talks with Russia to build some sort of US/Russian Moon base look like an exercise in futility -- as well as a potentially disastrous national security decision -- especially as long as the US space policy continues to have no defined military r political goals, and no high level political support.
The international aspects of civil space policy will need to be re-examined. How can America effectively cooperate with other nations in space, and is such a goal even desirable? If so, with whom? Traditionally, the US attitude has been that when the goals are scientific, we cooperate -- for instance ny putting a US instrument on an Indian Moon probe.. However America ca has in the past only been willing to share its space technology with other nations under strict safeguards. The overall US technological lead in all areas, however, is no longer as great as it once was. Europe for example, now builds commercial communications satellites that are just as good as the ones made in the US. The advantages and disadvantages of international space cooperation may be one of those few areas where a commission to examine the problems might be useful.
Whether or not he becomes President, Gingrich has been thinking about space issues for a long time; we could do worse than to listen with an open mind.