What’s the National Space Council for?

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Credit: nasa.gov

Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, the current Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, has beat me to the punch with her commentary for Scientific American on the public spectacle that was the first meeting of the National Space Council (NSC), which took place October 5.

It was a prototypical dog-and-pony show (see photo) – “an elaborate display or presentation, especially to promote something,” by dictionary definition. What was this event promoting? Deregulation and other government actions to boost profits for the aerospace industry.

NASA televised and webcast the meeting. (I watched the webcast.) The event actually had a title (!!): “Leading the Next Frontier: An Event with the National Space Council.” It was staged – and I mean “staged” – in front of the space shuttle Discovery (and near the SR-71 spy plane) at the National Air and Space Museum’s cavernous Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Vice President Mike Pence chairs the NSC, and he served as the master of ceremonies for this event. Here are some samples of Pence’s scripted, flag-waving rhetoric (with my own comments):

  • Discovery is “a national treasure.” (See my chapter in AIAA’s 2013 book, Space Shuttle Legacy: How We Did It/What we Learned. I wrote about “the shuttle as a cultural i”)
  • “We will once again astonish the world…as we boldly go…”
  • “America will lead in space once again.” (The U.S. spends more on space than all other space-faring nations put together.)
  • “America seems to have lost our edge in space.” (A refrain we’ve heard since at least the 1980s – when I entered the space community.)
  • We need “a coherent policy, a coherent vision.” (Another refrain we’ve heard at least since the ‘80s…)
  • Since Apollo, the U.S. space program has “suffered from apathy and neglect.” (Really? NASA’s budget is around $18 billion a year. This number equates to apathy and neglect?)
  • We “will never again let America fall behind in the race for space.” (Why is it a race? Who’s running in this race? And toward what ends?)
  • “We will restore our proud legacy of leadership.” (Gone are the days when the U.S. can expect to be Number One, Boss of the World. Leadership these days requires dialogue, partnership, cooperation.)
  • “We will return American astronauts to the Moon” and then “to Mars and beyond.” (George H.W. Bush made this claim, couldn’t deliver. Ditto for George W. Bush. The Obama administration set its eyes on sending astronauts to an asteroid – who knows why – and under Obama, NASA beat the drum for “humans to Mars.”
  • “We must be as dominant in space as we are on Earth.” (Why?)
  • “Renew the American spirit itself.” (Empty words.)
  • According to the president, “it is America’ s destiny to be the leader of nations.” (Destiny is a religious concept. And the goal of being “the leader,” rather than “a leader,” is not viable in the current global environment. It hasn’t been for some time.)

Walkowicz comments, “Listening to Pence’s address echo across the hanger of space luminaries, the Discovery space shuttle peeking over his shoulder, I couldn’t help but find his narrative surreal. After all, some 250 miles over his head, Americans were nonchalantly plunging in orbit around our planet, tethered to the International Space Station as they busily engaged in the work of living in space.”

As Marcia Smith noted on Space Policy Online, the day before the event the Wall St. Journal published an op-ed by Pence stating that the president’s intent is to send people to the Moon and then on to Mars. Republican. “How that and other goals will be achieved,” Smith noted, “is not addressed other than to say that the Space Council ‘will look beyond the halls of government for insight and expertise’ and create a Users’ Advisory Group ‘partly composed of leaders from America’s burgeoning commercial space industry’.” Whatever that means….

At the NSC extravaganza, Cabinet secretaries and corporate executives were trotted out to play their parts in the spectacle:

From government: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Secretary of Defense James Mattis; Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross; Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao; Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke; Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney; National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster; Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats; Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot; Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States Michael Kratsios; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul J. Selva.

From industry: Marillyn Hewson, president and CEO, Lockheed Martin; Dennis Muilenburg, president and CEO, Boeing; Dave Thompson, president and CEO, Orbital ATK (recently acquired by Northrop Grumman); Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO, SpaceX; Bob Smith, CEO, Blue Origin; and Fatih Ozmen, CEO, Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Here is how these companies ranked on a list of top 100 government contractors for fiscal year 2016, according to Aeroweb:

Lockheed Martin: $43.3 billion (#1) – in 2016, net sales=$47.2 billion, net earnings= $3.8 billion

Boeing: $26.4 billion (#2) – in 2016, revenues=$94.6 billion, net earnings=$4.9 billion

Orbital ATK: $2.3 billion (#22) – in 2016, revenues=$4.5 billion, earnings=$292.2 million

(Northrup Grumman: $12 billion (#5))

SpaceX: $1 billion (#52) – SpaceX is not publicly traded, so information on revenues and profits is not publicly available. See this posting on the Motley Fool.

Sierra Nevada: $1.2 billion (#44) – Sierra Nevada is solely owned by Fatih Ozman and his wife Eren Ozman. Information on revenues and profits is not publicly available.

Blue Origin (not on the list, privately held)

As I listened to these people reading their parts in this tightly scripted production, I kept thinking, Don’t they have better things to do?

The NSC meeting was a public spectacle. I’ll quote from my chapter (Chapter 7, p. 151) in the proceedings of NASA’s 50th anniversary history symposium:

“In his famous essay, “Society of the Spectacle,” published in 1967 at the peak of U.S. space frenzy, French critic Guy Debord (1931-1994) argued that in contemporary industrialized, commercialized society, image had supplanted reality as our social reality. He observed:

‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation…. Spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people, mediated by images…. The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible…. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact is already obtained by…its monopoly of appearance…. The language of the spectacle consists of signs of the ruling production…. As information or propaganda, as advertisement or…entertainment, the spectacle [is] the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption….

In today’s ever-more-mass-media-saturated cultural environment, the society of the spectacle continues to thrive. Thanks to increasing numbers and varieties of media outlets and mass communication technologies and techniques, the U.S. space program is as much of a spectacle as it ever was, arguably even more so. Witness the NSC meeting.

Here are a few more quotes from the NSC meeting:

  • Marillyn Hewson: “Nothing better represents America’s optimism about the future than space.”
  • Dennis Muilenberg: “We are a part of the $80 billion a year favorable trade balance” that the U.S. aerospace industry accounts for.”
    • We support “comprehensive tax reform.”
    • “We must commit to an uninterrupted human presence in Earth orbit.”
  • Dave Thompson: “We should be bold in our aspirations.”
  • Gwynne Shotwell: We need “meaningful regulatory reforms…must remove bureaucratic practices” that slow down industry…“regulation written decades ago must be updated” if we want a strong U.S. space launch industry.
  • Bob Smith, Blue Origin: Our vision is “to enable a future in which millions of people are living and working in space.”

Pence asked his panel of experts, has the U.S. fallen behind in space? “How quickly can we get back in the forefront?” Hewson said “it is an imperative” to lead,” and “we have to vigilant” about maintaining leadership. Thompson said we can do it in five years.

Tillerson asked if international law posed “obstacles you are encountering.” Shotwell said not at the moment, “but these things are coming.” Mulvaney asked where the companies “need help on de-regulation.” Pence said, “Let’s work on streamlining regulations, removing bureaucratic hurdles” before the NSC’s next meeting.

We’re right back to the Reagan era of the 1980s – when I entered the aerospace community: deregulation, “commercial” development, deregulation, corporate tax breaks, deregulation. And so much tired, empty rhetoric. It’s discouraging. But I’ll keep paying attention.

 

 

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Wise, and sobering, words on space policy

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Credit: ancient-code.com

I haven’t been blogging much about space issues over the past few months. Current directions in civilian space exploration are disturbing. I’m referring primarily to the drive for sending people to the Moon and Mars and the concurrent drive to let private companies do whatever they want in space with little to no accountability.

We don’t have the money to send people to the Moon and Mars. I doubt that Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have the money (no matter what they say). I don’t think it will happen any time soon. But the rhetoric of space conquest and exploitation is relentless, amplified by constant drum-beating in the mass media.

Today I have something worth blogging about – an excellent article that my friend Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese published in the October 12 issue of Nature. Joan is one of the most astute, well-informed, and nonpartisan space policy analysts around today.

Her commentary in Nature, “Build on the Outer Space Treaty,” is right on the mark. With space libertarians crawling out of the woodwork to tout their agenda of “less regulation,” “streamlined regulation,” “minimal regulation,” “permissionless innovation,” and so on, it’s refreshing to hear from a rational actor, with no financial interest in the advancement of the libertarian agenda of space colonization and exploitation.

“A lot has changed” since the United Nations Outer Space Treaty was ratified in 1967, as Joan notes.

Indeed. Fifty years have passed. Think about what has occurred during that time.

And then think about the current environment for space law and policy.

I agree with Joan that, “Fifty years on, the Outer Space Treaty [is] still appropriate. But interpretations of its provisions are, more than ever, being influenced by commercial interests and politics. Supplementary rules and norms are needed.”

We now have space businesses (and space advocacy groups) driven by libertarian ideology that have convinced our Republican-led Congress to pass laws authorizing U.S. businesses to pursue their dreams of space colonization and resource exploitation with little to no oversight. “Almost 50 commercial and non-profit organizations are listed in the informal directory of the Space Frontier Foundation…, which is committed to facilitating the human settlement of space. These companies are exploring ideas from satellite refuelling to mining asteroids for water and providing extraterrestrial human habitats,” Joan notes.

Witness the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015, and the pending American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act Free Enterprise Act of 2017. Whether these laws are in compliance with international law – primarily the Outer Space Treaty, which by the terms of the U.S. Constitution is “the law of the land” – is debatable.

My friend Joanne Gabrynowicz, an eminent space-law expert, told Legal Newsline earlier this year that these recently passed U.S. space laws won’t help regulate U.S. space activities. “Overall, these laws and bills are more politics than law and contain little substance… They have a lot of technical legal language, like ‘sense of Congress’ provisions that do not create law. In all, they are intended to appear like authentic law when, in reality, they embody a great deal of legal uncertainty.”

At a series of Senate hearings earlier this year on “Reopening the American Frontier,” so-called “commercial space” executives asked – of course – for minimal regulation of their activities. At a hearing on “reducing regulatory barriers and expanding American free enterprise in space” (April 26), Bigelow Aerospace president Bob Bigelow said it succinctly: “Less regulation is better.”

At a hearing focused on “how the Outer Space Treaty will impact American commerce and settlement in space” (May 23), University of Nebraska law professor Matt Schaefer and Laura Montgomery, former counsel to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, both testified that Article IX of the treaty – which directs signatories (including the U.S.) to “conduct exploration [of celestial bodies] so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary,…adopt appropriate measures for this purpose” – requires only consultation, not regulation.

Planetary protection experts disagree. For NASA-funded missions and experiments, compliance with the agency’s planetary protection policy is mandatory. “Commercial space” companies are arguing that they should not be required to comply with any sort of planetary protection policy, and, so far, the FAA commercial space office appears inclined to agree.

If, say, Elon Musk were to be able to build a human colony on Mars – a mission that I doubt will unfold in the near future – his project would certainly contaminate the planet for the purpose of scientific exploration for evidence of past or present martian life. Does one single billionaire have a right to do it? Is this what “free enterprise” means? I’ll argue that we need to get a grip on how “free” enterprise should be – especially in outer space, which is not an exclusively U.S. domain.

At a hearing on “promoting partnerships between commercial space and the U.S. government to advance exploration and settlement” (July 13), Tim Hughes, SpaceX senior vice president for global business and government affairs, testified that his company’s goal is to make humanity a multiplanet species. We hear this claim from SpaceX principals and their fans on an almost daily basis. But, really, the goal of a business is to make money. Period. And though Hughes and his peers continue to argue for minimal government, in his testimony Hughes said the U.S. government needs to modernize launch facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base to meet the needs of “commercial” launch companies.

The more level-headed Jeff Manber, CEO of Nanoracks, said at the same hearing that while some of his colleagues have “this utopian view” of less government, he doesn’t agree. “One of the things that government does well is provide…basic infrastructure.” – Nanoracks is “leveraging” public investment in infrastructure – specifically, the International Space Station – to make money.

Now let’s get back to Joan’s commentary.

As all this talk of so-called commercial space development goes on, Joan writes, “conventional interests of prestige, geostrategic influence and military missions in space have come to the fore.” Here are some facts about the space policy environment that she highlights:

* “The number of countries, consortia and companies involved in space is growing. In 1959, when the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was formed, there were 24 members. Today, there are 84.”

* “The United States sees China’s encroachment on space as heightening the risk of a space war. China’s launch of a ‘science mission’ in May 2013 that nearly reached geosynchronous orbit (about 36,000 kilometres above Earth) caused quiet panic in the Pentagon and in US intelligence circles.”

* “Since 2013 [the U.S.] has been preparing for war in space, whatever that might look like. US officials are now actively exploring offensive and defensive space-based activities.”

* “Although weapons of mass destruction are banned in space, weapons in general are not.”

I find these facts sobering.

Meanwhile, advocates of an unfettered campaign of space conquest and exploitation continue to beat their drums. And here’s a deeply disturbing drumbeat: a Mars colonization “anthem” offered up by the ever-nutty Mars Society. “Rise to Mars! Men and women. Dare to dream! Dare to strive! Build a home for our children. Make this desert come alive!”

An anthem? Next thing you know, we’ll be seeing Leni-Riefenstahl-esque propaganda films advocating for the conquest of other planets. I don’t know whether to laugh it off or hide under my bed…. What about you?