Monday, June 04, 2012

Book Review: Space Politics and Policy: An Evolutionary Perspective

I'm about ten years late reading this book, but it was still well worth reading. Space Politics and Policy is an excellent text for the motivated reader to "get smart" on space policy. It is not cheap, even used (I got my slightly marked-up copy on for $40); it's still over $100 new as of this writing, but even given the price constraints and age of the book, it is worth reading because most or all of the issues it addresses are still relevant today, just in more advanced form.

As a space advocate for the last 15 years and a NASA contractor for the last six, I thought I understood (more or less) how space activities "happened," at least from the NASA perspective. However, this text enlightened me quite a bit on how policy is executed in the space business and how politics generally shape those policies. In a series of essays covering everything from commercial activities to international relations to military and intelligence space issues, this book addresses the broad waterfront of activities and gives the reader some good insights into "how the game is played."

For example, it might or might not come as a surprise to the interested space fan that space policy is not designed to rapidly advance our nation's progress into the final frontier. Congress and the President do not sign on to high-priced space programs because they have a burning passion to settle the solar system. Unless a crisis hits, as it did in the '50s and '60s with the launch of Sputnik or the flight of Yuri Gagarin, Congress doesn't like to make drastic changes to space policy; instead they follow a policy approach known as incrementalism, which basically means, "We'll take what we did last year and maybe throw a few more dollars at it." Otherwise, it takes a crisis mentality for the political class to take an issue seriously enough to make dramatic changes (consider Washington's reactions to the Great Depression or World War II compared to business-as-usual).

Next--and this should not surprise space advocates at all--space policy is inevitably tied to defense, economic, scientific, or even intelligence-gathering policy--because the same rocket that can send an astronaut to the Space Station or the Moon also can send a nuclear warhead somewhere on Earth or launch a spy satellite into orbit. So, again, space is not voted for on its own merits (exploration, technological development, settling the solar system) but to advance some other, more Earthly concern. Which means that space advocates cannot ignore Earthbound issues. There was a time, of course, where space was more or less outside the usual run of national political affairs, but that time was between May 25, 1961 and July 20, 1969. Aside from that "golden age" of space policy, where human beings heading for the moon constituted a critical national issue, space has become a rather routine and minor part of government expenditures, like farm subsidies or the Coast Guard. Attention to space can be gauged by how much money is spent on it: from a peak of five percent of the federal budget in 1966, NASA now constitutes 0.44% of the total.

One of the big lessons of this book, aside from understanding how incrementalism works in space policy, is that the U.S. space business has several different power centers or "voting blocs." These would include: the Executive Branch (and its appointees within NASA), the Legislative Branch, the civil service bureaucracy within the individual NASA centers, the Department of Defense, the intelligence-gathering community, the private sector, and interested advocates. Conceivably, you could now split the "private sector" bloc into traditional aerospace companies like Lockheed-Martin and Boeing and the "NewSpace" sector, comprising companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace. While the former organizations generally adhere to the system as it has existed, the latter companies are trying to transform U.S. space policy to be more freewheeling and less dependent upon government dollars. Perhaps the section of the book most germane to my day job is the altogether too brief discussion on where government works best vs. where the commercial sector does best. To wit: governments can best absorb large, dangerous, or complicated projects that have little to no immediate payoff, such as infrastructure (space stations, space ports), basic research into scientific principles or new technologies, and exploration of frontiers; the private sector works best when it is marketing proven products and services to a mass market.

Regardless of how many groups you divide things into, the book makes clear that for any policy to be implemented, it must meet the needs or advance the goals of several of them. Given that the system is set up to advance things slowly, any would-be world changers need to understand the behaviors and needs of the various stakeholders in your policy and how they might respond. If you push for a policy that only benefits one group, the others will fight back against the change.

I also appreciated the book's chapter on international space policy, which came in handy as I was attending the Global Space Exploration Conference this past month. While space exploration is undoubtedly a mechanism for advancing technology in a nation, not every nation in the world advances at the same pace--and there times when the U.S. does not want other nations getting ahead of it technologically. This is why we end up with Europe as a junior partner on some programs (human spaceflight), a fully-fledged equal or lead on others (science missions), and a competitor on others (commercial satellite launches). This is also a reason why export control laws are so challenging. You might decry such attitudes as dangerously short-sighted or parochial, or you might regard them as cautiously prudent. In any case, with many more spacefaring nations in the mix than ever before, it is no wonder that international space activities have become so difficult to sort out and execute. The fact that we got the International Space Station built at all is something of a minor miracle in diplomatic and technical circles.

The bottom line is that if you are interested in space policy, how it works, and how you might make things (a little) better, Space Politics and Policy is well worth reading. As national and commercial activities in space become ever more advanced and complex, it is well worth considering that the policy environment will become equally as complex. It's not as simple as the President getting up and giving a speech anymore. The calculus of policy is as difficult as rocket science, with the added challenge of new variables being added every now and then. Something to think about the next time you wish we were doing more in space.

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