Is Policy Overrated?

Posted: August 6, 2009 in U.S. National Space Policy

If policy is a “goal or aim of government or society,” (my informal definition), it is important to bear in mind that goals and aims change all the time. It is also important that “government” also changes over every once in a while. So while I’m not trying to say policy can be dismissed or that we shouldn’t have it, to me, its analogous to eating more fruit and vegetables. It generally falls into the “no kidding?” bin.

I recently read an article at The Space Review entitled Elements of a 21st century space policy. Based on what I’ve already described to you, you can probably imaging that I’m not crazy about the article. I can agree with about 15 percent of it, disagree with about a third, and am ambivalent on the final half. Forgive the rounding error, but its in spec.

The part I agree with has to do with the essential nature of stable and adequate funding for space systems. First, let’s be real. To quote myself and many others throughout time, if it ain’t funded, it ain’t. Next, I can also get behind the article’s idea of encouraging commercial enterprise in space, to include property rights. If there are no property rights in space, what is the incentive to build anything with such a low (or negative) return on investment? The whole galaxy doesn’t have to be given away a la the railroads and westward expansion, but the fundamental issue of ‘what’s in it for me?’ for the entrepreneur and capitalist should never be dismissed. Cash for comets anyone?

Now, on the other hand…

Mechanically, the article is filled with distracting elements of weirdness, jargon, and gibberish. This includes a quote from Parag Khanna (Who? The guy may have a 20-pound brain, but he’s not Britney Spears. Introduce him!) and wonkish phrases like “broad brushstrokes” (groan), and “auto-catalytic development.”

Next, the article defers excessively to internationalism and cooperation. Those things are fine as long as they don’t interfere with national needs. However, there is a reason current policy is titled U.S. National Space Policy.

Finally, the article seems to think existing U.S. space policy lacks efficacy because of its belligerent tone. That tone, while way too plain spoken, doesn’t make the current policy lack efficacy. Instead, what the policy is missing is an executable nature. It simply says the U.S. will do things it either can’t or won’t. Or both. If our space policy did what it suggested, China would absolutely freak-out. Notice they are much more freaked out about the U.S. economy, borrowing, and the dollar than they are about space.

Since I like to end on a positive note, I’ll tentatively endorse the importance the author assigns to space tourism. For space to be most fully exploited, we need a breakthrough in the ways we get to space. I view space tourism as the most likely method for this to happen. Government programs tend to refine existent technologies and current propulsion systems haven’t changed too much since Bob Goddard’s time. Cheaper access to space is a valuable goal and our current space community (civil, military, and commercial) can be expected to keep doing what they’ve been doing. The breakout will have to come from somewhere else, and it may well be the space tourism industry.
When a new U.S. National Space Policy is issued, I hope the tone to the world is a little less sterile and a bit…friskier. Along the lines of “Here’s what we want to do with regard to space. Wanna go with us?” Policy that over-promises is bound to under-deliver, so a reality-constrained policy is what I’d prefer to see when it gets renewed. Otherwise, people just look at it and say “those goals are not achievable” and lose interest.

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