Thursday, April 10, 2008

No Retreat from Tomorrow

Without question, the best commentary inspiring of perspective, meditation, and sound thought on present day space exploration is The Space Review. It makes no claim of being the repository of the best archives or science, but what it does provide is didactic in the form of good writing and timely, well-informed commentary. It is always difficult to recommend which article of the week needs to be read first. But for entertainment's sake, I turned first today to They were warned, by Taylor Dinerman.

Mr. Dinerman's piece reminded me that Congress was not the only group to be warned, over and over, of the inevitable end of the Space Shuttle, and "The Gap" looming ahead for workers at KSC and JSC particularly. The rest of us were warned, also. And ultimately, Congress derives its power from you and me. We, too, were warned, and the fate of NASA's worker and plant investments are ultimately our responsibility, and not only the responsibility of the next president or, more importantly, the Congress.

One rare example of representative government being successful at long-term planning was the Apollo program, and it's sustained, persistent and ultimately successful manned lunar landings.

Political Will (without which, nothing is ever accomplished) combined with the Cold War's "battle for men's minds" and kept real funding for NASA's missions going steady through an escalating and expensive Vietnam War and a general social upheaval not seen since before Appomattox, rivaling Depression and World War, through three presidential administrations from 1961 until 1972.

It is astounding this funding was sustained from the 86th Congress through the 92nd, through six congressional elections.

Those of us experienced with this sorts of things often say your average legislator "has the attention span of a circus monkey."

It was not always this way, but in modern times, as you might expect of what is still the most productive nation on Earth, Congress has "a lot on its plate," and, for good or ill, they are required to be extraordinary people (or must surround themselves with extraordinary people) just to keep their reception schedule straight.

Congress costs us more than a billion dollars per year to operate, prioritizing new and more clever ways to define their generosity by its prior claim on our paychecks.

So, as cringing as it has been to hear the cries of outrage from Florida's impacted federal representatives over the arrival, at long last, of a long-overdue end to the experimental platform called the Space Shuttle, it is understandable.

Not because it plays well at home. The folks back home, especially those impacted by the loss of real jobs, their own jobs, ahead, with the $500 million retirement of Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour, have seen it coming for a long time.

As hard as it might be to believe, the outrage and squeals you've been hearing from the Florida delegation in Washington reflects genuine surprise, or at very least a purposeful tone of rhetoric those using it hope will arouse their colleagues and boost the signal over the unprecedented noise level to be heard in the marketplace.

NASA is a creature of Congress, after all. For the rightful credit given John Kennedy for Apollo, Lyndon Johnson was more influential in his desire not to "sleep by the light of a communist moon" when he lead the U.S. Senate in 1957 that gave birth to NASA fifty years ago. He was the reason the Vice President, serving in that role under President Kennedy, is still chairman of the National Space Council (and why Dan Quayle, in that same role sixteen years after Johnson's death, prevailed upon NASA to restore the traditional blue "meatball" as its logo, setting aside the "snake" of the 1980's).

Lyndon Johnson was the most successful president in history in getting his agenda passed in Congress, even if his Civil Rights initiative required Republican votes to win out over the opposition of southern Democrats. Mercury, Gemini and through the Apollo 1 fire in January 1967, in 1968, less than a month before he left office, the crew of Apoll0 8 became the first men to leave Earth orbit and return from the Moon.

I credit President Johnson not to raise sympathy for an admittedly enigmatic historic figure or to claim this friend of my father was misunderstood or his historic role under-appreciated, though with regard to Apollo, it clearly was and is.

I'm as ambivalent toward this man as the next guy.

My point is to cast light on an often hidden reality about the exercise of real political power, the kind that escalates an increasingly unpopular war, declares another "unconditional war on poverty," and shepherds Civil Rights legislation, bill after bill, through an increasingly hostile Congress.

Ronald Reagan understood the principle, having on his desk the engraved words, "Anyone can get anything done if they don't care who gets the credit."

Ronald Reagan was a product of Labor and Hollywood, however. Lyndon Johnson was a creature of Congress, like NASA, and he never really quit being the Senate's majority leader until he left Washington physically and politically exhausted and handed it all over to the neo-socialist anti-communist and equally complex Richard Nixon in January 1969.

In the "vesting clause" of the U.S. Constitution, we read, "All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States..."

For all the concern united in the election of the American President, it is just a president, after all, that will also be elected this year, along with the next Congress, where all the money and power originates. Divided as it is among 538 accidents and Alphas, both men and women, it is the embodiment of the apparent chaos of representative government.

"Find a better country," as they say. (Good luck with that.)

When decisions are made about "ramping up" or eliminating Constellation after the election in November, it will not be an expression of the charisma of the next president. The decision will be made by the lumbering sausage factory on Jenkins Hill in the Potomac swamp.

No building inside the limits of the District of Columbia can be built higher than the U.S. Capitol Dome for a reason. That's where decisions are made about what should actually be done, and how, with that prior claim on your wages.

Rather than ask Senators Obama, Clinton or McCain their positions on Constellation or COTS or the very real threat of regulation of NewSpace when you exercise the responsibility of casting your federal ballot, it might be a better idea to know what your congressional representatives plan to do when the 111th Congress convenes next January.

Better still, why not clue them in on what you want them to do.

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