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Toward a Post-Clinton-Gore Space Policy

November 4, 2000
James Oberg

The space program hasn't been a presidential campaign issue in about forty years, since the panicky days of the `Space Race' when a false "missile gap" accusation helped boost JFK into the White House. But since space activities are key contributors to advanced technology, science breakthroughs, national prestige, and international diplomatic leverage, some attention may be warranted.

This is especially true now, in the closing days of the campaign, when after years of delay the first permanent crew is now heading for the International Space Station. In Soviet times, Moscow often staged "space spectaculars" for propagandistic celebration of specific dates. Cynics can be forgiven wondering if that's not one of the tricks we've now learned from our new space partners.

Both candidates have issued position papers regarding space technology, military use, and commercialization. There are some technical differences in the proposed policies but analysts need to avoid getting caught up in details, and step back to examine one glaring characteristic of the last eight years of the Clinton-Gore space policy, which is bound to continue in a Gore administration.

This is a primary devotion to grandstanding, imagemanship, and feel-good make-believe, to the detriment of reality-based planning. There has been a consistent practice of trying to impose desired outcomes onto an unwilling reality through sheer force of will, matched with a continuous litany of politically-advantageous "spins" on the results. And where the White House has led, obedient federal bureaucracies such as NASA have followed -- if they know what's good for them at budget time.

The result has been catastrophic for the prospects of a sustainable, productive American space program, even as short-term gains have been registered for the current White House leadership. The news from NASA was always to the advantage of VP Gore -- the director of public relations there was a former press secretary of his.

Recent appalling setbacks at Mars and with advanced rockets, and agonizing delays with NASA's cornerstone program, the International Space Station, can be traced to a failed approach -- an approach that presidential candidate Al Gore was instrumental in charting during his years as VP. The result? The current sad status of the American space program was summarized by the trade weekly SPACE NEWS last June: "After eight years of deliberate neglect and downsizing, NASA is in more disarray than it has been at any time since the Challenger disaster."

It's no surprise that the Clinton Administration exploits space activities just like every other activity of the federal government. Opportunistic "space spectaculars" such as the John Glenn shuttle mission to cure old age during the 1998 election, or the recent NASA announcement of plans to launch an Israeli astronaut into space next year, seem designed to appeal to core Democratic constituencies at critical campaign stages.

Another example: In 1998, when NASA astronaut Eileen Collins was assigned by NASA to command a shuttle mission slated for July 1999, she was presented to the country at a special White House ceremony presided over by Bill and Hillary Clinton. The clear message was that they were responsible for this choice of the first woman entrusted with this responsibility, and they deserved credit for it. Actually, it was the result of even-handed and normal crew assignment patterns established many years earlier, in response to Collins' own superb competence.

But when Collins's shuttle blasted off (with Hillary Clinton in attendance), a short-circuit nearly forced a hazardous emergency landing in Africa. Investigators traced the near-catastrophe to wiring bundles mishandled by overworked, understaffed teams at Cape Canaveral. Major reductions in the workforce had been pushed by the White House as a money saving measure and Gore had been among the officials who had boasted about the savings.

Gore's campaign brags about downsizing government, yet dodges any blame for such consequences. And Gore recently tried to shift blame onto Republicans. "When the Republican leadership sought to slash NASA funding by more than $1 billion, I fought to restore [it]," a Gore letter recently stated. Yet according to Internet space journalist Keith Cowing (an admitted democrat), the cut in question was proposed in the House Appropriations committee and reversed by House Republican leaders who "have consistently recommended more money for NASA than the White House has". That claim that Gore saved the space program from Republicans, wrote Cowing, "sounds nice, until you check the facts."

Although the public record shows that "the Clinton/Gore Administration cut NASA's budget 7 out of the past 8 years," Gore claimed otherwise: "I have played a key role keeping NASA's budget stable," his statement said. That, writes Cowing, "is simply false -- you actively helped guide its decline."

Behind the declining budgets at NASA lay a declining experience base, as NASA leadership sought to satisfy White House policies. After a visit to one NASA site, an official told a gathered audience that he could easily see what was wrong with the workforce: "too many pale stale males", that is, too many old white men. And NASA set about remedying that flaw.

In retrospect, NASA officials now say that the disasters at Mars in 1999 were mainly due to the absence of experienced analysts who would tell management what was true, not what management wanted to believe. The errors that destroyed the four probes, in hindsight, were errors that NASA workers had once knew how to avoid -- but had somehow forgotten in the push to "re-invent" itself on White House directives. Or to be more blunt, these were errors that the "pale stale males" knew how to avoid, but the new generation didnâ^À^Ùt.

The X-33 project is another over-politicized NASA disaster. An unmanned hypersonic rocket plane supposed to prove out new technology for a replacement "Space Shuttle" design, the billion dollar program was assigned to a California aerospace contractor in a high-profile ceremony shortly before the 1996 elections. Al Gore officiated, and proclaimed, "This is the craft that can carry America's dreams aloft and launch our nation into a sparkling new century."

It was all a dream. Some new technologies worked out, but other critical items proved impossible to build. When inaugurated, the program was supposed to be three years from first flight. Today, after repeated setbacks and redesigns, it is estimated to be about three years from first flight, at best. Some outside experts now doubt the vehicle will ever even get off the ground.

One space vehicle which has gotten off the ground is the International Space Station. In 1993, NASA was told by the Clinton-Gore team to add Russia to its list of a dozen international partners, and to give Russia key roles in providing critical hardware. This plan, which according to the White House would save billions of dollars and years of work, eventually did exactly the opposite -- as experts both inside and outside NASA had tried to tell the White House it would at the time. The project has cost more, taken longer, and performed much poorer than alternative approaches, but the illusion of its "success" is a feather in Al Gore's cap as "master of the Russian partnership", so expect him to make self-congratulatory speeches when the current mission gets there.

Gore's propensity for rejecting expert advice contrary to his own opinions is not new, nor is it restricted to space subjects. One of the most notorious examples of this came in 1993, when William Happer, a respected physicist, was dismissed from his post as director of energy research at the Department of Energy after, according to Physics Today, "opposing the prevailing views of Vice President Al Gore..." California Democratic representative George Brown, Jr., himself an expert on advanced technology issues, observed: "Happer marches to a different drummer than Al Gore. Will is a pure scientist. Gore is a politician."

This theme echoes a criticism leveled at Gore by the House Republican study group on US-Russian relations, which severely criticized Gore in a report released last month. One item in its "List of Failures" was: "An unwillingness to let facts guide policy, or even to make mid-course corrections in light of . . . mounting evidence of the failure of their policies."

In another example, Dr. Stephen Cohen has quoted Gore from a March 1998 speech as stating, "Optimism prevails universally among those who are familiar with what is going on in Russia." As Russian economic decline accelerated, and US space projects which had been ordered to rely on Russian support grew more costly and more delayed, the message was clear: ignore any contrary evidence.

One worrisome aspect of Gore's preference for comfortable illusions over hard reality is his treatment of Russian rocket technology transfer to "rogue states" such as Iran. One oft-proclaimed benefit of the Russian space partnership is that it keeps their rocket scientists employed harmlessly, rather than exposes them to the temptation to sell their skills abroad.

Yet this theme, which started as a noble goal and degenerated into a vain hope, has wound up as a dangerous delusion. Most of Russia's aerospace workers from Soviet days were laid off early in the 1990s and never rehired by new commercial or cooperative programs. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of them have always been available for jobs outside of Russia. Every country that has needed to rent Russian rocket expertise has been able to get it, at prices so low it proves interdiction is a total failure.

Earlier this month, John Lauder, a high-ranking CIA official, told a Senate subcommittee that "Iran is acquiring Russian technology, which could significantly accelerate the pace of its ballistic-missile development program." Robert Einhorn, an assistant secretary of state in charge of stopping arms proliferation, shared this view: "I feel confident that we will have to report to you that a number of entities subordinate to the Russian Space Agency have in fact provided support for Iran's missile program," he said.

Yet the Clinton-Gore space policy, which proclaimed that this could never happen, continues to evade any retribution to its Russian partners. In obedience, NASA has had its legal staff work out loopholes based on revised definitions of ordinary words in congressional directives about constraining transfers of additional NASA money to Russia. Even when Russian missile aid to Iran is unambiguous, NASA is still allowed to send money in the event of "imminent" danger to astronauts -- so NASA just decided to interpret "imminent" to mean "anytime in the future", and sent the money.

One other amusing sign of NASA's slavish obedience to political whims is a project called Triana, a satellite literally dreamed up one night by Gore.

The satellite would provide the first full-face images of Earth's sunlit side, which Gore contended would inspire American children. Although many satellites already provide segments of such views, they have to be computer-stitched together, which apparently spoils the emotional effect even though it looks the same.

NASA quickly approved the project, while space officials praised Gore's insights and imagination. The agency skipped normal science review and competitive evaluation processes. Once the project became funded, scientists added some useful instruments to the payload besides the camera.

At one point last year, NASA was drawing up plans for a space shuttle mission to launch Triana during the current presidential campaign. As a bonus, the shuttle would carry an all-women team of astronauts (another targeted constituency?). But then a secret NASA medical report dismissed the scientific value of such a mission. Delays also resulted from congressional budget hearings which were skeptical of the program's scientific merit.

Hardware development troubles have pushed off `Triana' even further, and last summer it was bumped from its already-delayed mid-2001 mission. In its place, another small payload was added.

Embarrassingly, the replacement payload carried the code name "Lonestar". Perhaps that was too nagging a reminder of George W. Bush, so NASA had the satellite renamed "Freestar" to avoid the impression of a Texan of any kind replacing Al Gore`s space brainchild. Images, after all, were rated higher than realities in this latest twist of the Clinton-Gore strategy for space exploitation.


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