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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