The Politics of Space

Review of

Can Democracies Fly in Space?: The Challenge of Revitalizing the U.S. Space Program

New York: Praeger, 1995, 236 pages.

In Can Democracies Fly in Space?, W. D. Kay, a political scientist at Northeastern University, argues that “something is terribly wrong” with the U.S. civil space program. It is in trouble, he believes, because the U.S. political system is ill-suited to sustaining large-scale technological enterprises. He is right that the space program is in trouble and that the United States supports such undertakings poorly. It is not as clear, however, that the woes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) can be laid at the doorstep of political dysfunction.

Few would argue that the space program is healthy. Kay succinctly records the catalog of adversity that has befallen NASA since the halcyon days of Apollo. Programs come in late and over cost. Projects costing over $1 billion, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars Observer, produce spacecraft that disappoint or even disappear. Other countries take over leadership in areas the United States once dominated, such as commercial satellite launching. The space shuttle program fails its supporters by denying them the cheap and reliable access to space that it promised; the space shuttle Challenger fails its crew. Like the shuttle before it, the nascent space station is redesigned into irrelevance. Kay believes that previous attempts to explain this sorry record have proved inadequate because they ascribe the problems to a single cause: NASA is an ossified bureaucracy.Presidents since Kennedy have failed to provide leadership.Congress micromanages or underfunds the space program. Vision is lacking. The country needs a cabinet-level Department of Space. All of these imply that some silver bullet can set everything right.

Not so, says Kay. He seeks the roots of the problem in the political environment. Although he does not ignore or excuse NASA’s own mistakes, Kay concludes that “the space program’s failures, like the earlier successes, have multiple causes, all of them ultimately traceable to the way the American political system operates.” To get at these multiple causes, Kay adopts a “metatheoretical perspective” and explores the political context of the space program in nine categories or “arenas,” all of which, he claims, shape the space program. These arenas are corporate-managerial, legislative, executive, judicial, regulatory, academic-professional, labor, popular mobilization, and international. His analysis portrays NASA as a victim of forces beyond its control. Presidents voice a rhetoric of expectation but fail to lead. George Bush, for example, proposed a “Human Exploration Initiative” but failed to build popular or congressional support. Other executive agencies support NASA only when it suits them. The Air Force, for instance, endorsed the space shuttle only after NASA redesigned it to carry spy satellites. Congress puts NASA officials through a gauntlet of committee hearings that test patience and endurance but otherwise achieve little in the way of coherent, long-term policy formulation. The aerospace industry, a powerful force in shaping national policy, cares more about an expensive program than a productive one.

The list goes on. In the absence of a clear and compelling national goal in space, our space program succumbs to interest-group politics. Presidents want to appear bold and forward looking. Congressmen want contracts for their states and districts. Corporate executives want large, stable projects of long duration. Space scientists want their experiments funded and launched. Space enthusiasts want their vision of the future embraced. Other federal agencies want their missions facilitated. Even foreign countries lobby to have their projects sustained. Small wonder then that space policy bears little resemblance to NASA’s recommendations. Kay admits that NASA has contributed to its own problems through mismanagement and misdirection, but, he says, “many of its ‘mistaken’ decisions, procedures, and policies do not necessarily reflect the agency’s own preferences, but are rather an attempt on its part to accommodate forces over which it has no control.”

Kay’s decidedly apologetic point of view stems, perhaps, from his close ties to NASA and his admitted enthusiasm for spaceflight. He researched this book in 1993 during a term as scholar-in-residence at NASA headquarters. By his own account, he is “a devoted follower of the Star Trek television programs.” In spite of these sympathies, however, he insists that he is agnostic about space policy and unsure whether NASA should even proceed with its current centerpiece program, the space station. Rather, Kay wants to frame the problem constructively. He believes that we should either reform the way space policy is developed or “rethink our original policy decision” to be a spacefaring nation.

No single cause

In many ways, Kay succeeds admirably. He makes a persuasive case for the pluralistic nature of space policy formulation and demonstrates how political forces led some of our largest projects astray. For example, the space shuttle was reshaped by the Air Force, Congress, and the White House. The constrained budget for the Hubble Space Telescope had no room for the testing procedures that would have revealed the flawed mirror. The space station has been reduced to a life sciences laboratory. In developing this useful insight, however, Kay falls into the very pattern that he finds objectionable in the other literature on the space program, indulging in a single-cause explanation of NASA’s problems. For him, all is politics. The political arenas that he investigates explain to his satisfaction all of NASA’s successes and failures . When the politics were right, as they were in the early 1960s, Apollo was possible and the moon was within reach. When they are wrong, as they have been since Apollo, you get the Mars Observer, Hubble Space Telescope, and Challenger. Though he does not say so directly, Kay implies that good politics generate adequate resources, and adequate resources yield success in space.

This misconception might be called the Apollo myth: If we had a president who was visionary enough and a Congress that was generous enough, we could do anything in space we set our minds to. In this view, politics is the single determinant of successful space policy. Would that it were so. But in fact, the laws of economics and the laws of nature limit the space program just as surely as politics does. For example, it is not just that our current space shuttle disappoints. Any space shuttle built with existing technology would fail to achieve the reliability and economy that NASA promised. There is no technology on the horizon that is going to change that, no matter what kind of presidential leadership the country has and no matter how wide Congress opens the public purse. No reform of our political system is going to change the laws of nature or make manned spaceflight commercially viable.

How did NASA get itself in the position of pursuing programs that defy the laws of nature and economics? One answer is “buying in.” This is the now-venerable Washington technique of intentionally underestimating a program’s cost and overestimating its payoff. The real cost and benefits surface only when the project has absorbed so much funding that there is no turning back. Kay says he finds no evidence of NASA consciously playing buy-in, but he was looking in the wrong places. His study is based entirely on published sources. Though he researched this book as a scholar-in-residence at NASA, he apparently sought no primary documents and conducted no interviews. Had he done so, he might well have found ample evidence of buy-in. He surely would have found that NASA repeatedly promised Congress results that were physically and economically impossible to achieve. The space station currently under way is one such project.

What, then, should NASA do? How do you sell the Hubble telescope in a democracy? For that matter, how do you sell a breeder reactor or fusion energy, the human genome or a superconducting supercollider? NASA is not alone in wrestling with the problem posed by Kay. Large-scale technological enterprises take years, even decades, to complete. Seldom can democracies sustain political consensus that long. Sooner or later, the pluralistic political environment ties up Gulliverian dreams in a web of Lilliputian special interests. The simplest answer is to tell the truth. Propose what is physically and economically possible. If the political system will not fund it, then propose something it will fund. Good ideas do not go away; they can be funded another day. But a bad idea, especially an underfunded bad idea, will hang around the neck of NASA or any other federal agency and taint all future proposals. There are more examples of highly touted projects that proved disappointing than there are of worthy, feasible undertakings that went unfunded. We lost the commercial space market not because Congress underfunded NASA; we spend more on space than the rest of the world combined. We lost it because Congress bought a bad idea, the space shuttle. The sponsor of that idea was a space agency that sacrificed technical and economic judgment on the altar of politics.

Cite this Article

Roland, Alex. “The Politics of Space.” Issues in Science and Technology 13, no. 1 (Fall 1996).

Vol. XIII, No. 1, Fall 1996