Three months ago, President Obama appointed a committee to advise him on what to do with NASA’s manned spaceflight program. In a few weeks, the committee will wrap up its work, and the Obama administration will chart out NASA’s new course. What should conservatives and libertarians hope to result from this process?
There are at least four basic impulses that divide the Right on the question of the federal space agency. To oversimplify: Some strict small-government types want to reduce or even eliminate government spending on human spaceflight. Some conservatives are predisposed to think of space as inhumanly detached from everyday concerns or foolishly distracting from the national interest. Some who are concerned with American glory, strength, and vitality want NASA to take on bold new challenges. And some who are concerned with enterprise want NASA to help the private sector develop space and then to get out of the way.
The last impulse is exemplified by engineer and blogger Rand Simberg, who argues in a powerful new essay that NASA should build the infrastructure needed for a vibrant private space industry. He largely agrees with Derb’s assessment of the Apollo missions and thinks that the space agency’s new plan must be sustainable and must have the goal of making the United States “a spacefaring nation, and the leader of a spacefaring civilization.” Simberg argues that propellant depots — basically gas stations in space — are the key to making it happen.
Meanwhile, engineer and author Robert Zubrin, who testified before Obama’s space committee yesterday, makes the case for a NASA mission directly to Mars. The Red Planet, he argues, is scientifically interesting, poses a bracing and inspiring civilizational challenge, and could feasibly be home to our first colony on another world. (The president of the Mars Society, Zubrin has been advocating a Mars mission for years and, among other projects, has spearheaded a Mars-simulation research station in the high Arctic.)
Simberg’s and Zubrin’s visions for NASA each appeal to different impulses on the Right, but they are obviously in tension. (“It isn’t NASA’s job to put humans on Mars,” Simberg writes. “It’s NASA’s job to make it possible for the National Geographic Society, or an offshoot of the Latter-Day Saints, or an adventure tourism company, to put humans on Mars.”) Yet Simberg and Zubrin both agree that a large part of NASA’s failures in recent decades can be attributed to the lack of interest and resolution on the part of the political class. It is hard to see how Obama’s space advisory committee, whatever it recommends, can change that.