Don’t Cede Ultimate High Ground to China

Douglas MacKinnon
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Posted: Mar 26, 2008 7:23 AM
Don’t Cede Ultimate High Ground to China

Because of the 2008 presidential election, our nation's human spaceflight program is at a perilous crossroad.

While Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain all have made allusions to supporting the program, none has made it a priority. In fact, in late 2007 Obama went on record as saying he planned to pay for his $18 billion education plan by taking it out of the hide of NASA. In defending his desire to delay the Orion and Ares programs (the next generation crew spacecraft and rockets), he stressed, "We're not going to have the engineers and scientists to continue space exploration if we don't have kids who are able to read, write and compute."

Perhaps now would be a good time to remind Sen. Obama of the sage and relevant words spoken by a president with whom he has been compared on occasion. On Sept. 12, 1962, at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy addressed the importance of the United States having a vibrant and preeminent space program. "…We mean to be part of it -- we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond…our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us…to become the world's leading spacefaring nation."

No matter who is our next president, he or she is either going to have to buy in completely to the premise of that young president, or stand aside and watch as other nations lay claim to the promise of space. There is no middle ground. John F. Kennedy understood it then, and the People's Republic of China, with its ambitious manned space program run by its military, understands it now. Preeminence in space translates to economic, scientific, educational and national security advantages.

With regard to the space shuttle, the International Space Station, Orion and Ares, the new president must make three words part of his or her space policy: "Stay the course." On Jan. 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced a "new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system." With Orion and Ares as the centerpiece of this new direction, it is essential that that there be no delays caused by partisan politics.

If a Democrat is our next president, he or she cannot look at the Orion and Ares programs as a "Bush" or "Republican" initiative to be scrapped.

Should the next president decide to delay or cancel our next generation spacecraft and rockets for partisan reasons, he or she will be condemning the United States to second-class status in space for decades to come. Delays or cancellations will cause a massive loss of capability as the work force with the knowledge and expertise to take us back to the moon and beyond will retire or move on to other careers. The United States has committed itself to this new direction. The next president must ratify such a commitment.

When and if the next president enthusiastically commits to — at the very least — staying the course, then he or she is going to have to do something equally important — mind the store. The new president and his or her team must keep a sharp eye on the career civil servants in the Office of Management and Budget who control the purse strings for NASA and our human spaceflight program.

In Washington there are often turf wars between the political appointees of presidents and the career bureaucrats who stay from administration to administration. I was once a political appointee and I've seen these battles up close and personal.

Many times, the career civil servants think they know better than the president and his team. With such a mindset comes the determination to "wait out" the political appointees — delaying or ignoring direct orders until a president you agree with, is elected.

By and large, the career employees of the Office of Management and Budget, are dedicated, hard working, and have the best interests of our nation at heart. That is not to say that some, on occasion, don't forget that they are unelected staff who have the obligation to follow the marching orders of the president.

For instance, this president and Congress have directed that the space shuttle fleet fly until 2010 and that the International Space Station be completed. Unfortunately, some at OMB saw it differently and did not allocate the money needed to finish those jobs. Additionally, OMB has taken $3 billion away from the president's space budget. Why? On who's orders?

Preeminence in space is critically important to the well-being of our nation. If the next president agrees, then he or she is going to have to diligently ride herd over the unelected staff at OMB.

Should our space program flounder, Chinese astronauts will establish the first bases on the moon, and the American people will be the poorer for our lack of leadership.