Friday, July 9, 2010
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The Oil Leak Speech: What We Already Knew
Much ado was made of President Obama’s June 15, speech on the ‘Big Spill,’ the economic and environmental disaster that is the record-breaking oil-leak from the BP-leased deep drill oil rig. The speech disappointed many, even within the president’s party, such as Senator Diane Fienstein. Many complained that using the occasion of the oil spill to push for the climate change/energy policy bill was not going to do anything to address the matter at hand: stopping the oil leak (more accurately oil torrent), and the ensuing damage from that leak. As much as Democrats may agree with the president’s proposals, even they can see that voters’ attention is very much on the oil leak and its consequences. They understand that the longer it continues, and the longer the president does not at least appear to be squarely addressing the crisis, even voters sympathetic to the president’s climate change and energy policy will grow impatient.
The truth is, the speech’s only expected potential value was the psychological and political benefit of re-assuring the public of the president’s attention to the crisis, mitigating the growing perception that he was disengaged, and it did not do that well. Instead, the president tried to use it to advance his climate and energy agenda, and it did not do that well either. In fact, with his detached demeanor and professorial words spent on items that will do nothing for the current crisis, the speech may have reinforced the image of him being disengaged, and may even be used against him by Republicans in the future. All in all, it was a speech that did not tell us anything new about the president, his agenda, or where he intends to lead this nation, and offered little in the specifics on what else the federal government could even do to plug the oil gusher.
The Space Speech: What We Need to Know
The speech that really was informative of where America is headed was one that was rather lightly covered, and little discussed by pundits on talk shows or infotainment comedians.* This was the speech the president delivered on April 15 (tax day, no doubt on purpose), at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and it was about the future of America’s plans for manned space flight. The policy speech in effect certified the president’s intention to end the United States’ ability to send astronauts into space in the ‘short’ term. The president announced the cancellation of further development of the Ares rocket that was part of the Constellation program, which was intended to preserve America’s space-faring capabilities and return humans to the moon. Instead, this means that it will be at least until 2015 before decisions about what launch vehicles to develop next will be made. It also scaled back development plans for the Orion capsule (which would have carried astronauts into space on top of the Ares 1 rocket launch vehicle) so that it may be used only as a life boat vehicle for an evacuation the International Space Station (ISS). After that, Obama calls for the renewed manned exploration of space by Americans to reach Mars by 2030. Of course, no presidential policy can really have any meaningfully predictable impact on government programs that go beyond his last presidential term, let alone 14 to 18 years later; so this Martian part of his stated policy is effectively meaningless.
*Yes, we are now at a state of affairs where comedians are acknowledged in otherwise reputable news programs as part of our public policy ‘cognoscenti.’ It’s not the substance of what you say that matters now; it’s how entertaining you are when you say it.
So, what we do know is that for the rapidly approaching foreseeable future, after the last space shuttle flight in 2011, the ability of the United States to send people into space will end, and space travel of any kind will be left to the Russians and Chinese. In fact, President Obama made clear that we will be relying on Russian rockets to keep the ISS staffed. This is truly remarkable, given what can at best be called the ‘challenging’ state of relations between our three countries (Secretary Clinton’s “reset’ efforts notwithstanding), and the past willingness of these two countries to use any and all options at their disposal to coerce other nations to see things their way (think Russia withholding fuel from Ukraine in the middle of winter). As for the president’s claim that we can count on private enterprise to make up the difference, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel concluded in January of this year that no private launch firm was certified for carrying humans into space, and that there were no such vehicles in development to earn such a certification anytime soon.
The $10 billion spent so far on the Constellation Program will be lost, to save money. What’s interesting about this budget-cutting is that amidst all the stimulus funding to create new jobs, 12,000 high tech jobs of the space industry will be lost. These highly specialized scientists and engineers, who safeguard the nation’s technological advantage, will find that the only job openings are in China.
The day before the speech by the U.S. President, Wang Wenbao, the head of China's manned space engineering office, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that before 2016, Chinese astronauts are expected to be practicing docking maneuvers between orbiting spacecraft and cargo vehicles, and that these would be a prelude to "long-term operation of a space station.” While Mr. Wang expressed China’s openness to considering joint space exploration efforts with the United States as envisioned by President Obama, there were no specifics. Here’s our prediction: Any cooperation or joint efforts the Chinese accept, if any at all, will be limited, and the Chinese will be sure to do everything in their power to prevent the United States from regaining its leadership in space. The consequences of the policy outlined in the president’s speech will be invisible for the next two or three years. Thereafter, the national security consequences will begin to be felt with gradually increasing severity.
Lady Gaga Surpasses President Obama This Week on Facebook Friends
As the nation is engrossed with the Emmy’s, Dancing With the Stars, James LeBron’s career decisions, and Lady Gaga’s antics-filled success, the new Obama-appointed NASA Administrator Charles Bolden reveals to the Arab network Al Jazeera that Obama told him that his top priorities should be to foster children’s learning ambitions in science and math; to “expand our international relationships”; and “foremost” to reach out to the Muslim world, and “help them feel good” about themselves and their history. At least we know his priorities. Too bad none of them have to do with his agency’s purpose.
Meanwhile, in the last two decades our country has surrendered its leadership in banking, architecture, civic and public works engineering, and automobile manufacturing, as China has gained pre-eminence in each of those areas. We can now add aerospace engineering to that list.
There will be those who will question why do we need to explore space, just as people like them have questioned the need for every human advancement since the wheel was invented. These folks never understand the purpose of any advancement or achievement that does not immediately put food on their table, provide them better shelter, or (nowadays) give them healthcare. These same people often are urgently fascinated by whatever happens to be the current celebrity icon, and know every detail of the next fashion trend even as they look at the space program with a blank stare. People like these exist everywhere, and have always been there to slow human progress. But nations led by people like these eventually find themselves left behind by history; and their descendants with less food, inferior shelter, and without the luxuries and entertainment options their parents and grandparents so greatly enjoyed.