Congress, NASA, Other

Conflicting claims about China, NASA, and cooperation

Does NASA want to find ways to cooperate more with China in space, despite current legislative restrictions? Or is NASA using those restrictions to blunt the free flow of information among scientists? Both, depending on what you read.

On Monday, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that NASA administrator Charles Bolden met with the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences last week when Bolden was in China for the International Astronautical Congress. The two “exchanged frank opinions on pragmatic co-operation in relevant fields in the future,” the paper said, quoting a statement by the academy. (That statement does not appear on the academy’s Chinese-language website.) Bolden reportedly said he was “highly serious” about greater cooperation with China, particularly in the area of earth observation.

One obstacle to that cooperation, though, is law that has been in place for over two years prohibiting NASA (along with the Office of Science and Technology Policy) from using any funds for bilateral programs with China or to host Chinese nationals at NASA facilities. That language was added to the full-year continuing resolution that funded NASA for FY 2011. There was similar language in the FY 2012 appropriations bill that funded NASA, preventing the use of funds for cooperation with China and hosting Chinese nationals at NASA facilities, although that bill included a clause allowing exceptions when NASA certifies, and notifies Congress at least 14 days in advance, that there is no risk of technology transfer. That language was included in the continuing resolution for FY 2013, with the addition of a provision that any exception must demonstrate that any such interactions will not involve Chinese individuals known “to have direct involvement with violations of human rights,” and requiring at least least 30 days advance notice to Congress.

Needless to say, those restrictions make any kind of cooperation and interaction difficult, if not impossible. So it shouldn’t be surprising that this restriction has become an issue in next month’s planned Kepler Science Conference at NASA Ames. The UK newspaper The Guardian reported Saturday that scientists are upset that Chinese nationals, including those working at non-NASA institutions in the US, are being prevented from attending the conference. Several American scientists have decided to withdraw from the conference, the article reports, with noted exoplanet astronomer Geoff Marcy calling the restriction “completely shameful and unethical.”

While the article’s lede claims that “Nasa [sic] is facing an extraordinary backlash from US researchers,” the article is missing some details and nuance. The fault for any prohibition of Chinese participation in the conference lies not with NASA, but with the Congress that passed legislation with those provisions. Conference organizers could presumably get around this by moving the conference off the NASA Ames campus, but the additional expense in doing so would likely make that infeasible. Not noted in the article is the fact that, after sequestration went into effect in the spring, the Kepler project put plans for the conference on hold, reinstating them in the summer. The conference is also emphasizing remote participation because of restrictions on travel funding, allowing people to at least view the presentations and ask questions via the web. Presumably Chinese participants prohibited from attending the conference in person could still attend virtually—as many NASA and contractor scientists will have to do for budgetary reasons.

It’s also not the first time NASA has gotten entangled with this law. In March, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who pushed for the inclusion of the provisions in 2011, called out NASA for not excluding any Chinese participants from a meeting of the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites scheduled to take place at NASA Langley. NASA had not submitted any certification to Congress that the meeting did not pose a national security risk at least 14 days before the meeting, so Wolf said NASA should cancel any Chinese participation. No Chinese officials attended that meeting, according to its official minutes.

Moreover, this restriction should have prevented any Chinese participation in the first Kepler Science Conference, which took place at NASA Ames in late 2011, after the law first went into effect. There was, at least publicly, no similar outcry from scientists about a ban on any Chinese participation. (The Guardian article also claims that there’s “a broader law passed in July which prohibits Nasa funds from being used to participate or collaborate with China in any way”; I could find no such provision in recent law.)

One British astronomer quoted in the article said he hopes “everyone boycotts” the conference until NASA moves the conference somewhere else. In the end, though, the debate may become a moot point: with non-essential NASA operations suspended during the ongoing federal government shutdown, the conference itself, scheduled to begin November 4, could be in jeopardy if the shutdown doesn’t end in the next few weeks.

(Update 10/6 2:30 pm: some astronomers are making an admitted “Hail Mary” attempt to find an alternate venue for the conference, thus sidestepping the restrictions on attendance caused by hosting it on the NASA Ames campus. “I realize that ~400 people is a very large number of attendees, and that we are within a month from when the meeting is supposed to happen, and that we do not have funds to offer, but I believe that science must go on and that makes it worth asking,” writes astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz. But, as noted above, the current shutdown, which has halted meeting preparations, may be a bigger threat to the conference than any prohibition on attendance.)

66 comments to Conflicting claims about China, NASA, and cooperation

  • I’ll leave the legal details to others, but ‘remote participation’ isn’t a suitable solution. Conferences are where discussion happens, not just in the lecture hall but in the hallways and over coffee, and it’s vitally important for young researchers to be able to attend in person. Remote is fine, but no substitute for being there.

    • Hiram

      Remote participation might not be an ideal solution, but it’s far from not being “suitable”. Telephones are where discussion happens as well, and those work pretty well. It may be vitally important for young researchers to attend in person, but I guess it’s not vitally important to give them the funds to do so. You think those funds just come out of thin air. You think that young researchers just happen to have oodles of travel money? For goodness sakes, it’s vitally important that the meeting last at least a month, and that everyone there be chugging Red Bull because, hey, that makes a lot of discussion happen.

      In the interest of higher quality, lower cost, and broader breadth of communication, it’s about time we grow up with our technology and acknowledge the advantages of remote participation at such meetings. The idea that Chinese participation is in situ or nothing is just crazy.

      The unsuitability of remote participation sounds like what many consider the unsuitability of telerobotic space exploration. It’s all about “boots on the ground”.

    • Jeff Foust

      I agree with Dr. Lintott that remote participation causes people to miss out on the networking that takes place outside of the formal conference sessions. However, as a partial remedy (both for those who are restricted from attending by nationality as well as those restricted from attending by NASA travel policies put into place after sequestration went into effect earlier this year), remote participation seems better than not attending at all, or not hosting the conference at all. NASA and the Kepler project have been put into this tough situation by a combination of budget cutbacks and policies put into place by members of Congress who feel very strongly (for better or for worse) about cooperation with China. A total boycott or cancellation of the conference because of this will not help communicate the science being performed by scientists using Kepler data, and it is unlikely to sway the opinions of members of Congress who put these prohibitions into law in the first place.

      That said, I’ve updated the post with a last-ditch effort by scientists to find an alternative venue for the conference that gets around some of the restrictions. In the end, though, the ongoing government shutdown may make those efforts moot, at least for carrying out the conference at the originally scheduled date.

      • Hiram

        I’ll add to my comments that although pressing warm flesh is a historical nicety, and overhearing conversations you weren’t really supposed to hear can be useful, as is the catching of facial expressions when important topics arise, the advantages of remote participation at meetings are strong, and are really only now being developed. The science community has a fairly poor record in this strategy. There is no question that travel is not only expensive, but it’s also a major time sink. For “on-line” activities (attending talks that are part of the meeting plan), remote participation has few disadvantages. For “off-line” activites like “networking”, pressing flesh is historically advantageous, especially for being introduced to new people. One would like to believe that there could be creative strategies for encouraging that kind of networking remotely. The science community has a lot to learn from the business community in this regard.

        I’ll say again that to the extent that it is vitally important that young researchers attend these meetings, not having opportunities for remote participation effectively shuts most of them out.

  • I wonder when Frank Wolf will try to ban Chinese food …

  • amightywind

    Several American scientists have decided to withdraw from the conference, the article reports, with noted exoplanet astronomer Geoff Marcy calling the restriction “completely shameful and unethical.”

    The majority of NASA scientists like Marcy are left leaning and naturally sympathetic to the Chicoms. Congress has wisely decreed that the US not collaborate with the Chinese in space. China supports every tyrant on the planet. With Russia they obstruct at the UN, and threaten our allies and interests. The scientists need to get in line with the reality of US policy.

    • Daryll

      There is nothing wise about enacting legislation that paints all PRC researchers and scholars as thieves and spies until determined otherwise by Committee. Don’t conflate the attitudes and policies of the Chinese government with all of their citizens. Doing so makes about as much sense as to assume you yourself are left leaning like our current sitting President and his party; from the tone of your comment I suspect that wouldn’t be very accurate, now would it?

  • Coastal Ron

    amightywind said:

    The majority of NASA scientists like Marcy are left leaning and naturally sympathetic to the Chicoms.

    Oh, puh-leeze! I bet if we were to roam through you abode we’d find plenty of purchases you have made of products stamped “Made In China”. Does that make you a Chinese sympathizer?

    When are you going to understand that the old ways of the Cold War are over. We are now so interconnected, and the Chinese so capitalistic, that what you write makes you look like a relic of the Cold War era – and completely out of touch with reality.

    • Dick Eagleson

      Trade with China is one thing. We traded with the Soviet Union during the Cold War when it was to our advantage too. But the current Chinese government’s attitude toward the U.S. is not friendly. They view us as barbarian usurpers unaccountably occupying the place of first among nations they regard as rightfully theirs. Pervasive Chinese espionage against U.S. military and commercial institutions is a long way from being an atavistic paranoid delusion; it’s quite real and reportage on numerous discovered examples is easy to find. Much of the spying is done by Chinese citizens visiting the U.S. who have no formal connection to the Chinese gov’t. intelligence apparat, but are “encouraged” to pick up what they can if they have regard for the future well-being of their families. Congressman Wolf’s notions of prudence may not be yours, but they are far from irrational.

      • Coastal Ron

        Dick Eagleson said:

        But the current Chinese government’s attitude toward the U.S. is not friendly.

        Oh, but the USSR’s attitude towards us during the Cold War was friendly? I’m sorry, but your analogy and analysis on this doesn’t work.

        They view us as barbarian usurpers unaccountably occupying the place of first among nations they regard as rightfully theirs.

        So, they view us as we would view them if our roles were reversed? I see this as natural competition, but at a national and world level of course. And this will always be there.

        The trick in these types of competitions is be make sure they don’t end up as military conflicts, which we were close to doing with the USSR for many years. We are far away from that with China, and the best way to keep it that way is engagement.

        Pervasive Chinese espionage against U.S. military and commercial institutions is a long way from being an atavistic paranoid delusion

        I never said it did, now did I? Industrial espionage will always be around, and happens between “friends” even. Again, this is natural competition. The goal though is to keep it from escalating into a military conflict.

        Much of the spying is done by Chinese citizens visiting the U.S. who have no formal connection to the Chinese gov’t. intelligence apparat…

        Funny, I think most of it is encouraged by the Chinese government in a definite organized fashion. But again, this is not unusual given that China is still trying to become a fully-fledged 1st world country with all the high-tech abilities that come with it. But as they are finding out with the Long March 5, you can only steal so much – you can’t steal experience.

        Congressman Wolf’s notions of prudence may not be yours, but they are far from irrational.

        Considering how low-tech our space efforts are compared to our high-tech and bio-tech industries, I’d say Wolf’s fears are irrational.

  • Surprising how so many scientists are naive about political realities. A little like Leonard in the “Big Bang Theory” episode with his South(?) Korean girlfriend.

    Bob Clark

  • Daryll

    NASA Administrator Charles Bolden should rescind his moratorium immediately. I suspect that Frank Wolf wasn’t satisfied with his legislation and pushed for this in order to complete a total lockout.

    As far as the Congressman, here is one of his more illuminating comments:

    “We don’t want to give them the opportunity to take advantage of our technology, and we have nothing to gain from dealing with them. And frankly, it boils down to a moral issue. … Would you have a bilateral program with Stalin? [...] China is spying against us, and every U.S. government agency has been hit by cyber-attacks. They are stealing technology from every major U.S. company. They have taken technology from NASA, and they have hit the NSF computers … You name the company, and the Chinese are trying to get its secrets.”

    ‘Boils down to a moral issue’. Yes…it certainly does, doesn’t it.?

    • Coastal Ron

      Daryll said:

      NASA Administrator Charles Bolden should rescind his moratorium immediately.

      What moratorium?

      Is it a moratorium about serving chicken salad in the NASA commissary?

    • Josh

      The moratorium is on visits from **any** Chinese nationals (and some other foreign nationals) from participating in activities at NASA facilities (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NEW1GIekYk&noredirect=1, 13:00 in). By instituting this moratorium, Bolden effectively gave up NASA’s ability to certify activities and notify Congress, which is provided for in the language of the law (as the author points out above). This was put into place in March of this year, and is the proximate, if not root, cause for the current issue. This moratorium is not mentioned in the post, but is a crucial part of the current situation.

  • E.P. Grondine

    I expect China will begin work on a re-usable booster stage for the Long March 5, rather than on a larger heavy lifter.

    The 6 booster Long March 5 variant is very interesting.

    • amightywind

      I expect China will begin work on a re-usable booster stage for the Long March 5, rather than on a larger heavy lifter.

      Refuting your posts is like shooting fish in a barrel The Chinese will go the Apollo route because it is the only one that makes sense. Looks like the US will be happy to lead from behind.

      • Coastal Ron

        amightywind said:

        Refuting your posts is like shooting fish in a barrel

        That Aviation Week article you cite says “Chinese engineers are proposing a Moon rocket more powerful than the Saturn V”. Not that they are building one. They are in even worse shape than the U.S. is with the SLS program, in that they don’t even have funding to build any parts of it yet.

        As a reminder, here in the U.S. we have a BFR program (i.e. the SLS), but despite Congress mandating that NASA build a BFR, Congress has so far refused to fund any use for it. Two launches and it’s done.

        The Chinese will go the Apollo route because it is the only one that makes sense.

        If the goal is to block China from figuring out how to run a sustainable space program, then the Apollo route does make sense, since we’re already figured out that Apollo was not sustainable.

        Looks like the US will be happy to lead from behind.

        As long as our small aerospace companies like Orbital and SpaceX are able to exceed the capabilities of countries like China, I’m not worried. How many autonomous cargo spacecraft does China have? How close are they to testing reusable 1st stage rockets?

        And that’s the true measure – what your industries can do, not what your governments talk about. Why you have more confidence in government than private enterprise is beyond me…

        • Dick Eagleson

          Here, I’m with Ron. The Chinese gov’t. is pretty good at trotting out artists renderings of cool new stuff they’re intending to do Real Soon Now, but have neither the technical expertise nor money to attempt. A few months ago I recall seeing a half-dozen or so really spiffy future aircraft carrier ideas the People’s Liberation Army Navy was said to be planning. Very Jetsons-sy and swooperific. It seems wildly unlikely the current Chinese regime will last long enough to build any of them even if they start bending metal tomorrow – which they’re not. The Chinese are not the crude fabulists one finds in the Iranian gov’t., to be sure, but they’re not at all averse to indulging a bit of baseless strategic braggadocio now and then to provide thrills for credulous Westerners.

      • Hiram

        I think what has to be kept in mind here is what the REAL goal is. I strongly suspect that, to the extent the Chinese are interested in sending their people to the Moon, their real goal may not be the Moon, but just proof to the world that they are technologically as accomplished as we are. (Forty years late, but with some cash in their pockets now, unlike us.) Of course, that was true with Apollo. Our real goal wasn’t the Moon, but just to show that we were better than the Soviet Union. So the Chinese are just following our lesson of exercising soft power. That being the case, for the Chinese to float concepts for an HLV, it may not be about getting to the Moon first, or seventh or whatever, but just advancing the threat that, yeah, we could do a freaking big rocket (FBR) too! In that respect, it really doesn’t matter much if an FBR is the best way to get people to the Moon. It’s a technological challenge with which they can assert their expertise. To the extent that we’re going to do an SLS, they’re going to float the premise of their own FBR as well. Betcha when our SLS is canceled, their FBR plans will evaporate.

      • “The Chinese will go the Apollo route because it is the only one that makes sense.”

        It (presumably a single HLV launch with separate lander) makes sense when you have the dual constraints of ‘before the decade is out.’ and ‘before the other guy,’ whichever of those comes first. LOR was chosen not because of an economic superiority over EOR or Direct Ascent (though the latter would not have been any too cheap, either), but because, starting from where we technologically were at the time, it stood the best chance of getting there soonest. And ‘waste anything but time’ was the mantra then.

        China, however, isn’t ‘racing’ anyone (and their manned flight rate seems consistent with that), and can only be second to the moon, no matter how fast they do development, and has the obvious experience of the US and Russia to draw on. So, I’ll believe if I see evidence of HLV launch pad construction or at least very large engine test stand use, and still not worry. It won’t mean much if they get there in an Apollo-esq ‘sortie’ manner that they can’t fly often or sustain, even if it happens a few years before we have the cisclunar infrastructure to maintain a permanent presence on the Moon in an indefinitely affordable manner.

        What would give me cause for concern, is if they begin using their next station in an obvious orbital assembly/refueling/transportation node manner…

  • How come no one ever brings up that the U.S. is spying on China too?

    Or is that naive?

  • ASAN2013

    There is no denying Frank Wolf is a jerk. NASA didn’t really help matters by not having the procedure in place to protect itself from theft by an ex-employee. Fact it was a Chinese person was just…gravy on the platter and Wolf ate it up.

    So NASA fucked up and now science is paying for it. Kepler is just one conference, what about other future conferences?

    • If you mean Bo Jiang, he was hired partly because he brought valuable technology in collision avoidance software that he had developed in China. Despite Wolf’s intimidating and baseless claims, NO evidence was EVER presented that Bo Jiang ever took or attempted to take a NASA computer out of the country without proper authorization, or that he stole or attempted to steal any proprietary NASA information.

      • Article I wrote in May about Frank Wolf’s false charges against Bo Jiang:

        http://spaceksc.blogspot.com/2013/05/crying-wolf.html

        The kid had porn and some bootleg movies on his laptop, that’s all.

        • ASAN2013

          The NASA f-up I was alluding to concerns multiple reports on Bo Jiang case which seemed to indicate that it was a NASA laptop that was in his possession at the time of his arrest.

          NASA laptop should never have ended up in that compromising position to begin with, regardless of what information it contained or how it ended up there. That’s basic security.

          • ASAN2013

            Correction. The NASA laptop was reportedly taken into China and back on a previous trip when he was still working at the agency. There is no indication that Bo Jiang had a NASA laptop with him after his termination. I think my point still stands.

  • netlawyer

    Most NASA employees aren’t aware of the political considerations that go into setting priorities for the agency. I would never expect the scientific community or the general public to understand. No Federal agency is free from these considerations.

    Congressman Wolf is the Chair of the House appropriations committee that oversees NASA’s budget. That committee also oversees OSTP’s budget and after OSTP took on the China issue, the House committee proposed a 55% cut to the OSTP budget. OSTP ended up getting its budget cut by a third in the final bill.

    http://news.sciencemag.org/2011/11/congress-slashes-budget-white-house-science-office

    It’s clear that by sending Charlie to China and having him make statements about cooperating with China, the Administration is sending a strong message that it does not agree with the law. However given the controversy over the asteroid mission, funding for commercial crew, overruns on JWST, etc, they are going to have to pick their battles carefully.

    • ASAN2013

      Wise words. Considering Wolf will never lose his seat NASA needs to figure out how to get along.

      Holding science hostage is probably not the way.

      • vulture4

        The only hope for NASA is that the public will either shame some Republicans into dropping their support for Wolf’s chairmanship, or that the Democrats will regain a majority in the House.

    • DCSCA

      “Most NASA employees aren’t aware of the political considerations that go into setting priorities for the agency.”

      That’s had to believe as the agency was born and exists solely as an instrument of projecting politcal power.

      • Ben Russell-Gough

        Yes, they don’t really understand that. They think it’s something to do with technology development, science for the common good of humankind and space exploration.

      • Coastal Ron

        DCSCA opined:

        That’s had [sic] to believe as the agency was born and exists solely as an instrument of projecting politcal power.

        That was 55 years ago, and the only program that typified that was Apollo. And Apollo shut down over 40 years ago.

        If anything the modern use of NASA has been used to create trade and political partnerships, but Apple, Boeing and Caterpillar exert more political power overseas than NASA does.

        Just look at the MPCV program – NASA had to beg Europe to fund the Service Module so that the SLS would have something to do, and Europe won’t commit to building more than one Service Module. How in any way is that “projecting politcal power”?

        It’s now the 21st Century, you need to update your software…

    • E.P. Grondine

      This business with OSTP reminds me of the shutting down of the Congressional Research Service – no point in letting facts get in the way, when ignorance will do.

      The problem is that reality has a way of intruding.

  • E.P. Grondine

    Compare the number of Chinese, and the number fluent in English, with the number of English speakers fluent in Chinese.

    Not only are most public commentators on China’s space program not fluent in Chinese, but they are also usually ignorant of China’s science and technology goals, and China’s science and technology planning process.

    While I have had a stroke and am certainly not current,
    here’s a summation: SpaceX is the lowest cost launcher.
    IF SpaceX can get powered fly-back AND landing to work,
    then their launch cost gets lower.

    Musk is interested in powered fly-back for Mars.

    Whether powered fly-back is the best and most efficient re-use technology for ordinary launch is currently unknown. For that matter, it is not currently known whether it can be made to work at all.

  • DCSCA

    HSF is an instrument of politics; a means of projecting national policy– it’s political science, not rocket science that fuels it.

    Human spaceflight in this era projects geo-political influence, economic vigor and technical prowess, around the globe for the nation(s) that choose to do it.

    Apollo is nearly half a century in the past and was the high point of the American century- the 20th century- when the world’s population was — what, about 4.5 billion people. Today it is 7 billion, with nearly half not alive to be swayed by the Apollo achievement. The PRC is willing to hallmark this century as theirs by heading to Luna to mark this time as theirs in the here and now. A Chinese lunar expedition beamed realtme to billions of laptops, desktops, tablets and I-phones will capture the high ground– of political perception. The perception that American power has waned just as Britain power did a century before.

    HSF plays out on a stage with high visibility that demands performance with engineering excellence from all the actors. The bounties from which are all reaped by the participating nation(s) on Earth. That’s why governments do it. that’s why the PRC does it.

    It is space projects of scale that matter. Which is why, in the long run, short-sighted forays by deep-pocketed NewSpace hobbyists do not. As we’ve seen with all too much regularity, there’s money to be made in cyberspace, not outer space. NewSpace is driven by profiteers, not rocketeers, and is a dead-end.

    HSF is, in effect, a loss leader in this era for projecting national power and nurturing a perception of leadership. And in politics, perception is a reality. Which makes a drive to establishing a permanent foothold on Luna, seen around the world by all peoples in their evening skies, all the more imperative for the United States to pursue in this century.

    Commercial is welcome to come along for the ride– to supplement and service an exploration/exploitation outpost on Luna, established by governent(s). But they’ll never lead the way in establishing such a facility on their own The largess of the capital requirements involved coupled w/t low to no ROI prevents it; the very parameters of the market it is trying to create and service. That’s why governments do it.

    The rationale for HSF by the United States government in the 21st century was made in the 20th century by President Kennedy. It is as valid today as it was in 1961, particularly given the rise of the PRC:“We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.”

    • Coastal Ron

      DCSCA whined:

      HSF is an instrument of politics; a means of projecting national policy

      It certainly was during the days of Apollo, which is the period in time you can’t seem to leave, despite it being a new century and all.

      But that was then, and this is now – show us where HSF is a means of projecting national policy today?

      Tick, tock, tick, tock… ;-)

      • Hiram

        Hard to believe I’m defending Mr. Tick-Tock, but I don’t think you can argue that HSF isn’t mainly an instrument of geo-politics. There is no question that Congress funds NASA largely to do it as an expression of our technical excellence and superiority. (It also happens to be a handy pipe for federal funding.) They fund HSF in the name of “exploration”, which is a historical activity that was strongly coupled with geo-politics and expression of national power. No, the “exploration” that human space flight is all about sure isn’t about science or curiosity!

        Now, the unfortunate thing about it is that there are LOADS of ways of projecting technical excellence and superiority these days, and humans sitting on big rockets is perhaps advantageous only in that the activity is conspicuous. Big flames are conspicuous. Also in that the detritus of cold-war psychology is that rockets (size, number) are a measure of national power, and trusting people to sit on them makes them look well understood and controlled.

        If HSF is not for projecting national policy, then what in the world is it for?

        • Coastal Ron

          Hiram said:

          …but I don’t think you can argue that HSF isn’t mainly an instrument of geo-politics.

          Sure I can argue that point. You assume it is, and I’m just asking for proof that it is today.

          HSF can be an instrument of geo-politics, and was back in the days of Apollo. But the same can be said for any science-oriented endeavors that we pursue, like nuclear power.

          At different points in our history it was important to be a leader in exploring the ocean, or understanding DNA, or being a leader in some commerce-related field like banana’s.

          But those efforts change with the times, and just like Apollo was important to show the world that the U.S. was better than the USSR, there is no such need today.

          If HSF is not for projecting national policy, then what in the world is it for?

          What need do we have for exploring the oceans? Or exploring anything science related?

          We spend money on science and technology because the U.S. in the past has recognized that it pays off. Not all of the science has direct benefits, but sometimes the payoff is in developing new ways that pushes the technology side of things along.

          In fact, the only reason we did more than one Moon landing was because we wanted to do science, not because we were trying to rub it in that we beat the USSR to the Moon.

          The question though, as it always is when there isn’t a “National Imperative”, is how much do we spend? Without an acknowledged set of reasons, NASA’s budget is vulnerable to wide variations.

          So from a standpoint of “projecting national policy”, right now NASA is not too much different than NOAA, or any other multi-national effort we engage in. But just because it’s multi-national, it doesn’t make it “an instrument of geo-politics” – that implies an active policy with an objective that counters the politics of another nation, and I don’t see that being done with NASA today. Do you?

          • Hiram

            “HSF can be an instrument of geo-politics, and was back in the days of Apollo. But the same can be said for any science-oriented endeavors that we pursue, like nuclear power.”

            Exactly. Which is what I said. It’s not the only nor certainly not even the best instrument of geo-politics. But that’s what we use it for. We haven’t really reassessed the comparative importance of human spaceflight for geo-politics largely because of historical inertia.

            “What need do we have for exploring the oceans? Or exploring anything science related?”

            We have LOTS of means for exploring space without human space flight. In fact, as is being realized these days, human space flight isn’t about “exploring” much else than human factors in space. Since Apollo, really, almost none of our understanding about space comes from human space flight. Please don’t fall into the “exploration” trap. To the extent that exploration is about learning about new places, human space flight mostly doesn’t do it. Yes, that’s what we SAY it’s for, but the word exploration is therein used as a historical metaphor about humans doing hard and dangerous things in unfamiliar places.

            “In fact, the only reason we did more than one Moon landing was because we wanted to do science, not because we were trying to rub it in that we beat the USSR to the Moon.”

            That’s utterly, and patently false, and you know it. The Apollo program was never driven by science. NEVER. We did more than one Moon landing to show the USSR and the world that we could not only send people to the Moon, but we could do it repeatedly with confidence. Yes, we eventually sent a geologist to the Moon, and we sent humans to geologically interesting places on the Moon, but that was after the decision was made to go.

            “But just because it’s multi-national, it doesn’t make it “an instrument of geo-politics” – that implies an active policy with an objective that counters the politics of another nation, and I don’t see that being done with NASA today. Do you?”

            It’s naive to measure geo-political value by how much the politics of another nation is “countered”. Geo-political value is also measured in expression of power and competence. Human space flight is commonly perceived as a way to do that. That’s what soft power is all about. Soft power isn’t about hitting people, or “countering” them, but about flexing muscles.

            The bottom line is that human space flight is primarily sold as an instrument of geo-politics because we frankly can’t figure out anything else to use it for. Until we decide as a nation that colonization and settlement of space is a priority, or that material space riches require humans with pickaxes and driving bulldozers to harvest, human spaceflight really isn’t much good for anything else.

            • Coastal Ron

              Hiram said:

              We haven’t really reassessed the comparative importance of human spaceflight for geo-politics largely because of historical inertia.

              OK, but that has been going on for 40 years, so apparently something has been driving us to do HSF. We don’t have to have a geo-political reason to do HSF.

              We have LOTS of means for exploring space without human space flight.

              I don’t disagree on that, and that’s not really the issue.

              Yes, that’s what we SAY it’s for, but the word exploration is therein used as a historical metaphor about humans doing hard and dangerous things in unfamiliar places.

              You disregard that as a motivation, but I don’t. I think it has more to do with it than geo-political reasons, of which no one has been able to provide any current ones.

              Can you name a geo-political benefit to our HSF program today?

              Soft power isn’t about hitting people, or “countering” them, but about flexing muscles.

              Yeah, sure. But I think you and others ASSUME that our space program is some form of “soft power”. I haven’t seen any evidence, which really needs to come through explicit pronouncements from our political leaders.

              The bottom line is that human space flight is primarily sold as an instrument of geo-politics because we frankly can’t figure out anything else to use it for.

              Regardless, that doesn’t make it an instrument of geo-political power. It just makes those that use that phrase look like you don’t know what you are talking about. If you don’t understand why the U.S. Government keeps funding HSF, then just say it.

              For myself, I think we keep funding HSF for a whole lot of reasons, and not always good ones. And I certainly agree that we do need a clearer reasoning for why we are spending money on HSF and NASA in general.

              But to just throw up our hands and say, “I don’t know why, so it must be because HSF is an instrument of geo-political power” is just being lazy.

              • Hiram

                “We don’t have to have a geo-political reason to do HSF.”

                I don’t have a reason, but Congress does.

                “… for human space flight and operations in low-Earth orbit, and beyond, as an essential instrument of national security and of the capacity to ensure continued United States participation and leadership in the exploration and utilization of space.”

                That from the FY10 NASA Auth bill. It’s about the need for leadership. As in, leading other nations.

                As to the importance of humans doing hard and dangerous things in unfamiliar places, which you promote, sounds good to me, but that’s a goal that is NOT evident in NASA Authorization bills.

                “Can you name a geo-political benefit to our HSF program today?”

                The issue isn’t about geo-political benefits to our HSF program. It’s about geo-political benefits to our country from HSF.

                “The United States human space flight program has, since the first Mercury flight on May 5, 1961, been a source of pride and inspiration for the Nation.
                . . .
                It is essential to tie space activity to human challenges ranging from enhancing the influence, relationships, security, economic development, and commerce of the United States to improving the overall human condition.”

                That’s from the same Auth bill. National pride, as well as enhanced influence, relationships, and security is clearly a geo-political advantage. That’s not what I say. It’s what Congress says. Soft power isn’t necessarily about confrontations, but about leadership. Follow us, because we’re damned good.

                “I haven’t seen any evidence [for the value of soft power], which really needs to come through explicit pronouncements from our political leaders.”

                With the partnership on ISS, those pronouncements have to be made with some subtlety. But consider the painful wailing about not having our own human launchers, which of all our partners except Russia, only we wail about. The reliance on the Russians is a travesty, we are told. Why exactly is that, if not desperation to preserve the soft power of self-sufficiency?

                “But to just throw up our hands and say, ‘I don’t know why, so it must be because HSF is an instrument of geo-political power’ is just being lazy.”

                I think we agree there, and we just have to figure out why our nation insists on being lazy. I’m certainly not saying that it should be an instrument of geo-political power. I’m just saying that it is.

              • Coastal Ron

                Hiram said:

                That’s from the same Auth bill. National pride, as well as enhanced influence, relationships, and security is clearly a geo-political advantage.

                Yes, people throw around the words and think they have meaning. I’m looking for evidence that it does.

                The Apollo program was pretty explicit, in that we had a specific goal to attain. We have no explicit goals right now, so again, other than waving our hands around and saying that HSF is “an instrument of geo-political power”, what evidence is there that it is?

                With the partnership on ISS, those pronouncements have to be made with some subtlety. But consider the painful wailing about not having our own human launchers, which of all our partners except Russia, only we wail about.

                If they are so subtle as to not be obvious, then maybe they don’t even exist?

                As to not having our own human launchers, I guess the question is if not having to depend on another country for something you think is a key activity a sign of “an instrument of geo-political power”? Or is it just wanting to control your own destiny as well as creating new national industries for the obvious benefits they provide (employment, taxes, etc.)?

                I think we agree there, and we just have to figure out why our nation insists on being lazy.

                Lack of consensus, from all parties involved. That’s my guess. And if true, then it’s a hard one to solve. But I hope it is during my lifetime.

              • Hiram

                “We have no explicit goals right now, so again, other than waving our hands around and saying that HSF is ‘an instrument of geo-political power’, what evidence is there that it is?”

                That’s a fair question. Congress thinks it is. I don’t see what else it could be used for, and it certainly has a history as an effective instrument of geo-political power, long ago. Quite possibly it really isn’t an effective contemporary instrument of geo-political power, but since we have no explicit goals for human spaceflight now, saying that it is an effective instrument of geo-political power fills the bill. Whew! We have a goal! That is, the purpose of human spaceflight is as an instrument of geo-political power, but there is no evidence that it really works. Instruments sometimes don’t work. I never said it was an effective instrument.

                “I guess the question is if not having to depend on another country for something you think is a key activity a sign of “an instrument of geo-political power”?”

                I guess the answer is that depending on another country is seen by many as a sign of a lack of geo-political power. When Dragon flies to LEO with humans on board, we can puff out our chests with soft power and say to the Russians — there, we’re as good as you are now. Oooh, power! Just like what the Chinese will do if they send humans to the Moon. That power sure scares some people.

              • Coastal Ron

                Hiram said:

                When Dragon flies to LEO with humans on board, we can puff out our chests with soft power…

                No doubt, lot’s of pride. But beyond the Russians, and potential customers of our new commercial service, does anyone else care?

                I mean, isn’t that the true measure of “soft power”, or any geo-political power, that being able to do something gives you influence beyond the direct impact you have?

                Does Africa care if we have our own crew transportation system to LEO? Or Brazil? Does China even care, and if so, why?

                Back in the Cold War, when nations were trying to figure out which alliance to ally with, things like space programs were used to help measure which country was “stronger”, or whatever measure they thought applied. I think the strength of our economy and companies is a better measure today, along with our educational system.

                I don’t think much stock is put in how we spend money to send things to space…

              • Hiram

                I think we’ve come to an agreement here in that while the rationale for human spaceflight in Congress is clearly as an expression of geo-political power, there is no assurance that it really works that way any more. While Congress may include “exploration” as a rationale for human space flight, the human space flight we’re doing mainly explores the human response to microgravity, and perhaps the human condition in a stressful, demanding environment. Were humans to go back to the Moon or an asteroid, the exploration they would do there isn’t any better than what we could accomplish robotically these days. (That’s not quite an astronauts-are-obsolete argument, as robotic control is most efficient when humans are close.) Of course, the highly successful rationale for human space flight is as a funnel for dollars into particular congressional districts.

                As a result, Congress is deathly afraid to question the value of human spaceflight as a geo-political instrument, because such skepticism would cut the legs off the justification for the whole enterprise. While human spaceflight may still be about national pride and even entertainment, it isn’t clear that those things deserve major federal investment any more than do other sources of national pride and entertainment. Should Congress accept that cosmic settlement and colonization is a national priority (which they have not, thus far), the rationale for human spaceflight would become powerful and unarguable.

            • Coastal Ron

              Hiram said:

              As a result, Congress is deathly afraid to question the value of human spaceflight as a geo-political instrument, because such skepticism would cut the legs off the justification for the whole enterprise.

              Fair enough. We really don’t have a well known enough real reason for HSF, or even the robotic exploration stuff.

              I see robotic exploration as science, and human involvement as extending humanities sphere of influence.

              No doubt there needs to be an ROI for the U.S. to justify sending humans out into space, and the non-apocalypitic version is that we’re extending our economic sphere beyond terra firma.

              How does going to Mars do that? That does involve quite a few dots to connect humans traveling to Mars with some sort of payoff for the U.S. Taxpayer, and maybe that’s why no one has been able to make that argument?

              But I think the simple way to explain it is to use the analogy from old, that opening up new frontiers has historically benefited us. And because of that (in my best Presidential voice), I would make it the goal of the United States to become a space faring nation, and to extend our economic sphere of influence out into space. And to enable that, I would direct the agencies of the government to actively support national and private efforts to do that. And unless it is necessary for national security interests, the U.S. Government is to guide and support private expansion to the fullest extent possible.

              The “guide and support” part is important to me, since that means the government can act as an organizer and facilitator, which is what government can do well. But it keeps the focus on the economic benefits of expansion, which has to be realized by the private sector. If that means the expansion is slow, then so be it. But if Musk is trying to get to Mars, then the U.S. Government should be helping to some degree, even if it’s just to keep government from slowing down their efforts.

              If the goal is economic, then it’s easier to see than “soft power”, which is too undefinable today.

              My $0.02

              • Hiram

                Yes, actually we do have a really good reason for the robotic stuff. Just read the Space Act. It’s about learning about the cosmos. That’s what NASA is for.

                As to human space flight expanding the sphere of influence of humanity, what the hell do you think the robotic missions are doing? Who do you think sends those robotic missions? Who designs them? Who controls them? What HSF doing is expanding the sphere of influence of human flesh, which is slightly disgusting to think about. Those robots are extensions of our inquisitiveness if not extensions of our flesh.

                As to extending our economic sphere of influence, it pretty much comes down to what there is to harvest. The solar system is largely made of what the Earth is made of (though if you like hydrogen and helium, there are better places to go). So the value in harvesting space resources is what you can do with them in space. So the argument is circular. You can expand our sphere of economic influence in order to expand our sphere of economic influence. If you want to mine resources in a hard place, just go undersea.

                Opening up new frontiers has benefitted us because those new frontiers have been fine places to live. The Moon is not. Mars is not. How has Antarctica benefitted us? How has the Sahara Desert benefitted us? Let’s open up the “frontier” on the ocean floor. Sound good? Eh. I don’t see may people wanting to live there.

                Sorry, but we have to do better than that.

                I think that colonization and settlement are endeavors that should be considered, in a preserve-the-species kind of way. But I think everyone understands that a colony far out in the solar system, well separated from the Earth, won’t really preserve us for more than a few generations. A “United States” on Mars probably won’t last that long. Thank goodness Congress shows virtually no interest in doing that, at least since 1988 when a NASA Auth bill blathered about it to no evident effect.

              • Coastal Ron

                Hiram said:

                Yes, actually we do have a really good reason for the robotic stuff. Just read the Space Act. It’s about learning about the cosmos.

                And that is science, right? Isn’t that what I said?

                As to human space flight expanding the sphere of influence of humanity, what the hell do you think the robotic missions are doing?

                Reducing risk for future human exploration missions.

                So the value in harvesting space resources is what you can do with them in space.

                For now, yes. I’ve never argued that we would expand quickly out into space, but we also don’t know WHY people will want to expand out into space.

                For instance, we already know that Bob Bigelow wants to create leasable space stations, Elon Musk wants to create a human colony on Mars, Golden Spike wants to operate tourist trips to the Moon, and that DSI and Planetary Resources think there is money to made by mining asteroids.

                Will any of these endeavors succeed? I don’t know.

                But I think eventually people will succeed in doing activities off Earth, and then resources off Earth will become more important.

                When? If I knew then I’d be able to make money off of it, and I wouldn’t tell anyone. But as it turns out, I don’t know when, but I think it’s just a matter of time. But I do know that it will be sooner if the government collaborates with the private sector than if they don’t.

                I think that colonization and settlement are endeavors that should be considered, in a preserve-the-species kind of way.

                I’d like if our government was so far-thinking, but as you point out colonization may not lead to a “United States” on Mars and a nice steady ROI for the taxpayers who funded the whole thing. Because of that, I think the best approach is focusing instead on the near-term economic endeavors that provide near-term ROI for taxpayers, either directly or indirectly.

              • Hiram

                “Isn’t that what I said?”

                No it isn’t. Please reread carefully. You said “We really don’t have a well known enough real reason for HSF, or even the robotic exploration stuff”, and then you went on to define robotic exploration as science. The way I parse it, robotic exploration (and, I suppose thereby science), has no “real reason” to you.

                As to robotic exploration “Reducing risk for future human exploration missions” … yep, that’s that the HSF people say. No surprise. Fair to say that’s just one thing those machines do. Of course, they used to say that HSF was about doing better science. In fact, that’s just one thing those blokes do. As to reducing risk for human missions, that would seem to apply just to robotic missions to Mars and the Moon. Is Juno scouting out Jupiter for human visits? Is Messenger looking for comfortably shady places on Mercury? Of course, New Horizons well tell human Pluto pioneers how heavy a coat to wear, no? Dare we speculate what risk JWST is looking to reduce?

                “but we also don’t know WHY people will want to expand out into space.”

                PRECISELY right. And that’s the whole banana. Lot’s of people think they know why. But Congress doesn’t know why, or isn’t willing to admit it.

              • Coastal Ron

                Hiram said:

                The way I parse it, robotic exploration (and, I suppose thereby science), has no “real reason” to you.

                You keep misinterpreting this. I do in fact see a value in doing science separate from HSF. It’s part of human nature to learn as much as we can about what surrounds us.

                As to reducing risk for human missions, that would seem to apply just to robotic missions to Mars and the Moon. Is Juno scouting out Jupiter for human visits?

                I take the long view. There are robotic missions that are more closely aligned with places we’ll go to first, but all of them build up our knowledge and capabilities.

                But Congress doesn’t know why, or isn’t willing to admit it.

                They can’t even keep the government running, so I have no confidence they can articulate a meaningful policy that delineates what our HSF goals are for the next few decades. I think it will need to come from a President, but since this is not a big priority right now, it may take a while.

              • Hiram

                “I do in fact see a value in doing science separate from HSF. It’s part of human nature to learn as much as we can about what surrounds us.”

                Thank you for the clarification. I’m glad to hear that. But that’s NOT what you originally said.

                “There are robotic missions that are more closely aligned with places we’ll go to first, but all of them build up our knowledge and capabilities.”

                Ah, c’mon. We’re not going to send humans to Pluto for a century or two. Why not pack all those dollars for missions to Mercury and Pluto, and put them where we’re really going to go?? Your “long view” answers my question about JWST. Hey, we’re going to go to primeval galaxies someday, so best build up our knowledge and capabilities about them! The “long views” that pertain today are our efforts on ISS, not robotic missions to distant planets.

                “They can’t even keep the government running, so I have no confidence they can articulate a meaningful policy that delineates what our HSF goals are for the next few decades. I think it will need to come from a President, but since this is not a big priority right now, it may take a while.”

                That’s exactly right, and it’s why the days are dim for taxpayer-funded human space flight. We have a Congress that has a hard enough time just keeping the wheels on the bus, and a President who is too distracted to give human space flight any serious thought at all. It would take some imagination to have any confidence about federally funded human space flight these days.

  • Hiram

    I agree with a lot of this analysis, but the foundational precept is an important one. Human space flight isn’t important because of space. It isn’t important because of making resources available or colonization potential. It’s important because it allows nations to flex their technological muscle and express economic vigor. (The latter because, if you didn’t have money to burn, you probably wouldn’t do it!)

    The point that NewSpace is unable to project that muscle and vigor is arguable. NewSpace symbolizes the drive, entrepreneurship, and expertise that our nation is built on, as opposed to what the nation chooses, as a nation, to invest in. In a capitalist country, working in an increasingly capitalistic geo-economy, value is measured in dollars, and to the extent that NewSpace can make human space flight into dollars, it expresses power.

    In expressing national muscle and vigor, we rely on private sports teams to do the job. The Boston Patriots may be patriotic, but they aren’t funded by the taxpayer or controlled by the Administration and Congress. Our Olympic presence isn’t taxpayer funded. Perhaps we should call that projection of muscle and vigor “NewSports”? Except it isn’t really new.

    That being the case, to the extent the Chinese want to send humans to the Moon, it really has nothing to do with the Moon. It’s about equalization of perception. It’s about us being as good as you were. That may express national muscle and vigor, but it sure doesn’t express much independent thought. By doing that equalization in that way, the Chinese are playing our game, instead of creating their own. They’re following, instead of leading.

    • Hiram

      Apologies for the lack of indentation and reference in the above. The analysis I was agreeing a lot with was that of DCSCA … “HSF is an instrument of politics; a means of projecting national policy– it’s political science, not rocket science that fuels it.”

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