The big picture of how space policy gets done – or doesn't get done

The 2011 International Space Development Conference (ISDC) kicked off in Huntsville, Alabama, yesterday with a panel titled "How Space Gets Done" featuring a number of current and former officials and experts. The title was perhaps a bit unintentionally ironic, since panelists described just how inefficiently space policy is getting done in Washington today. "Where we are right now is, I think, rather unprecedented," said John Logsdon, referring to last year's events that led up to the passage of the NASA authorization act. "One can question whether that's the right way to make choices for the next quarter-century or more of the US space program." Much of the panel was a review of that debate, as well as the creation of the national space policy also released last year. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Paul Damphousse, who served as a fellow in Sen. Bill Nelson's office last year, mentioned the challenge of crafting authorization legislation that could make it through the Senate by unanimous consent, something Nelson considered the only way such a bill would pass given the limited time available. Peter Marquez, the former director of space policy at the National Security Council, mentioned work on the national space policy, including digging through historical papers and finding a quote from Eisenhower that went into the introduction of the 2010 policy after being asked by an unnamed participant in a senior leadership meeting during the development of the policy about why, rather than how, we do space. Most of that policy work, panelists acknowledged, gets done by a relative small, insular group of people in Washington. "Getting into the old boys network is a very difficult thing to do," Marquez said. Influencing policy is challenging, but with enough hard work by advocates, he said, good ideas make their way into policy. So, is there a better way to develop space policy? Logsdon discussed the provision in the authorization act that calls for a "decadal study" of human spaceflight analogous to those done in the space and earth sciences. "There's some hope that study… might provide a vehicle for coalescing around a long-term program," he said. However, he cautioned, "there is no recognized leadership within the human spaceflight community that could serve as the focal point for forming a consensus." That's a concern similar to one voiced by Marcia Smith in a panel discussion in Washington in March. Could having a cabinet-level secretary for space could provide some of that leadership? "I can't find any rationale to do that," Marquez said. Creating such a position, he argued, would take away authority from a number of existing civil and national security agencies, who would be naturally reluctant to give it up. "How do we get ourselves out of this morass?" Logsdon asked. Fifty years ago, he noted, we had an external motivation in the Soviet Union; a similar driving force doesn't exist today. "I kind of fall back on presidential leadership," he said. "I doubt this is going to happen, but I would hope that on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's own speech, next Wednesday, President Obama has something positive to say about working together internationally to find a global strategy for exploration… I would not hold my breath on that happening, but something like that needs to be done."

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