Only In Space Must National Prestige Be Nationalized?

I’ve been digesting a lot of the press coverage and advocacy that has come out against the decision to stop the Constellation space exploration project and have had a fair amount of cognitive dissonance as a result.  If you check my other recent posts on this point some of what follows will be familiar.  While I’ve managed to avoid the Cold War revisionist history that the Columbia Journalism Review found, I do see a similarity – a rhetorical approach that manages to ignore certain facts rather than construct factual opposing arguments.

Most of the factual forgetting I have run across seems to think that the Obama Administration proposed the termination of the Space Shuttle (this was part of Constellation).  There was always going to be a gap where riding Soyuz rockets to get to space.  We failed on that point a long time ago.

The notion that national prestige is connected to the ability of a federal agency to build, launch and operate spacecraft also manages to ignore some facts of current space efforts.  First, contractors, and not government employees, do a great deal of the work involved in human exploration.  A commercial company demonstrated the ability to launch and reuse a suborbital vehicle six years ago.  A larger cousin of that vehicle will operate passenger flights within another six years (perhaps much sooner).

That somehow commercial concerns are not capable of doing on their own what they’ve been helping NASA and the military do for over a decade is also a stretch  I would think it reflects just as well on the U.S. if those companies can take over the busy work from NASA, leaving the agency to focus on the leading edge of exploration.  This narrow conception of national prestige – the power of the state’s apparatus – sounds like something you’d hear from the Soviets or the Chinese.

Getting back to the actual issue – the new plan to break our monotonous hold on low earth orbit – I don’t know if it will be successful.  The last time this country sent humans past orbit I hadn’t learned to walk.  However, this plan represents enough of a break from past practice that I think it deserves a chance.  I think if the administration can convince the right members of Congress that steps will be taken to protect local jobs (as President Obama did last week in Florida), I think resistance will weaken.

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The British Election Hubbub and Science Policy

This afternoon/evening there will be the second televised debate (C-SPAN in the U.S., around 3 p.m. Eastern) between the three major parties in the U.K. election, with a focus on foreign policy.  The big deal coming out of last week’s first debate is the possibility that the Liberal Democrats – a third party – has gained significantly in most national polls.  Since the U.K. is a parliamentary democracy where citizens do not vote directly for the prime minister, it seems a long shot that the Liberal Democrats would gain enough seats (they currently have about 10 percent of Parliament) to form a majority government (a gain of roughly 260 seats).  The election is May 6.

But it does not seem such a long shot that an improved standing from the Liberal Democrats could make a coalition government necessary.  (Such a coalition government would likely not last long.)  As part of any power-sharing arrangement, the Liberal Democrats could obtain assurances of certain policy objectives, ministerial appointments, or other priorities.  Like it or not, the position of science minister, even if returned to official cabinet status, may well be one of those “minor” jobs given to the Liberal Democrats as a carrot to join a government.  I use quotes to indicate I don’t think the job minor, but realistically it is not considered a plum ministerial spot.  Remember, these are politicians serving in the position, not civil servants.

Even if Dr. Evan Harris – the Liberal Democrat shadow minister for science – does not become science minister, it’s worth looking at the manifestos of each major party to see what they have for science.

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