Facing NASA’s Earthbound Critics

Published January 22, 2004

The American Enterprise Online

It took a lot of political courage for President Bush to announce his new vision for NASA when he did. The president’s speech came after the successful landing of the “Spirit” rover on the Martian surface, but ten days before the scheduled descent of the twin rover, “Opportunity.” Should that second rover fail, critics of the president’s plan will use it as ammunition against the president’s wish to “extend a human presence across our solar system.” Why, they will argue, should we risk sending people into the deadly void when we can’t even get our robots through it successfully?


President Bush’s announcement also took gumption because space isn’t much of a political plus. The President has left himself open to election-year attacks from opponents who will call space spending wasteful–especially in light of our costly war on terror, wobbly economic recovery, and other deficit-expanding domestic spending. Even though the President’s space plans only call for moderate increases to the NASA budget, there will always be those who think any spending on space is too much. On this issue, the deficit hawks and libertarians (who think the government shouldn’t be spending on space except when it relates to national security) will find themselves allied with the big-spending liberals (who think we should spend those billions of NASA dollars “here at home” instead of in space).


And the President’s NASA announcement was courageous in still another way: it calls for concrete achievements during the next five years–that is, during the years President Bush will still be in office, should he be re-elected. Some observers have claimed that the Bush plan simply schedules all the hard work for the “out years,” leaving all the major challenges to later administrations. This isn’t true. The next generation NASA spacecraft, the “crew exploration vehicle,” is to be developed and first tested during Bush’s tenure. And the plan calls for new robotic missions to the Moon before the end of Bush’s second term.


To some extent, we should listen to–and can learn from–those critics. Space is dangerous; spending should be kept under control; the timetable could have been more ambitious. But there are other critics who argue that the president’s space plans will fail because they are impossible. Armed with an arsenal of impressive-sounding statistics, these critics make it sound like the president has given NASA a hopelessly unrealistic mission. These critics deserve an urgent response.


Take, for example, Gregg Easterbrook, the Brookings Institution fellow and New Republic senior editor. A smart and thoughtful guy, Easterbrook has written about space since at least 1980 when he penned a prescient Washington Monthly article pointing out the fatal flaws in the space shuttle long before the Columbia or Challenger accidents–in fact, even before the shuttle’s first space flight. Easterbrook has a history of opposing grand visions for NASA: In the mid-1980s, for instance, he attended a “Case for Mars” conference just so he could make the argument–unpopular in that optimistic crowd–that a mission to Mars was unaffordable, unrealistic, and inconceivable. When Easterbrook writes on space, he tends to come across as a thoughtful and well-informed amateur expert.


Now, on his blog on the New Republic Web site, Easterbrook has written a critique of the president’s space plan–a critique so grossly misleading that it makes him look like a crank. Among his whoppers:


  • “Boeing expects to spend around $7.5 billion merely to develop the 7E7 jetliner, which will stay within the atmosphere and use very well-understood engineering. The development cost of the crew exploration vehicle will be several times greater.” The facts: It’s not instructive to compare a passenger airplane intended for decades of government-certified use to a spacecraft with a tiny crew and dedicated missions. Easterbrook is comparing apples and elephants.

  • “The Air Force’s new F-22 fighter has been in development for 13 years; an entire new spaceship can be developed in four years?” The facts: Again, this isn’t an apt comparison; spacecraft and fighters are very different creatures. Besides, in the days of the Space Race we designed and built our first spacecraft and used them to put Americans into space all in less than four years–and we were starting from scratch back then, and working with pencils and slide rules.

  • Since we no longer have a rocket powerful enough to send men to the Moon, we’ll have to build one. It cost about $40 billion in today’s dollars to build the Saturn V rocket that took us to the Moon last time, so “a similar outlay would be entailed to develop a new super-rocket” this time around. The facts: Remember, we know much more about rockets now than we did when we began to develop the Saturn V. What’s more, the companies that manufacture some of the major rockets now used for launching satellites into space already have plans, at least on paper, to extend their product lines to include rockets more powerful than the Saturn V–for a fraction of the cost Easterbrook names.

Easterbrook’s analysis has other flaws, which have been deftly dissected by Rand Simberg and other bloggers. But there’s more at stake here than just fixing Easterbrook’s mistakes. In the coming weeks and months, as the president’s vision for space is translated from pronouncement to plans to policy, there will be many other bad analyses that sound trustworthy, and many other critics claiming to show that the president’s vision is unrealistic. Some of these should be taken with a grain of salt; others will need a whole shaker.


—Adam Keiper is managing editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.

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