Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma wants to fix space.
But that doesn't just mean fixing NASA. It also means fixing the military's space program. And fixing the environmental monitoring space program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And fixing commercial space programs, intelligence space programs, the US Geological Survey space program. And others.
On Tuesday, Bridenstine rolled out the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) at the 32nd Annual Space Symposium. As advertised, the legislation is supposed to kindle a reinvigoration of all manner of space-related stuff. And it looks to be an interesting approach to an interesting problem.
(Full disclosure, I used to work on space policy for the hosts of the Space Symposium, and while there I wrote a report outlining potential reforms that could make NASA more effective. The ASRA language borrows some of those ideas, though the borrowing is incidental.)
The point of ASRA is to fix what the US government does in space, how it regulates what the US does in space, and how the US interacts with other countries in space. That's a huge challenge.
What it is we're fixing, exactly? All we know for certain is that according to the 1960s, students should currently be spending their college study abroad semesters on the moon. They clearly are not, but there are a number of good reasons for that. There are, of course, the technical issues — casual ultimate frisbee games on the lunar surface would quickly result in tragedy — but space policy is actually mostly not about technology. There are loads of very bright engineers doing very bright engineering things, and they pull off some amazing stuff.
The persistent, underlying snags are more esoteric: budgetary profiles, launch indemnity, capital amortization, and all sorts of boring administrivia. However, if you don't solve those legal and financial issues, the best rocket in the world won't matter a damn bit because you won't get money to build it, a customer to buy it, or clearance to launch it.
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The problem is that nobody really knows how to manage all those various accounting and regulatory doodads efficiently. The immense pile of rules that govern how the US government operates in and regulates space is weak, uncoordinated, and spectacularly hard to change.
This state of affairs didn't come to pass because people interested in space aren't bright or don't know how to make things work better. On the contrary, if there's one thing the space field has an abundance of, it's bright people with clever ideas for how to make things work better. But there's an enormous distance between having ideas and doing anything about them.
This is where the ASRA comes in. It's supposed to be a way to gather up all the wonderful insights and clever ideas people have had over the years about making space work better and compile them in one place. This is important because nobody in Congress or at a single executive agency is actually in charge of space stuff. Broadly, the US president is, but the president is in charge of all kinds of stuff — so much stuff that he can't spend a whole lot of time worrying about space.
"Space entails a lot of different entities… but we do not have anyone in Congress really looking at the space holistically," Bridenstine said. "The science committee is focused on NASA. The subcommittee on the environment focuses on NOAA. The intelligence committee focuses on national reconnaissance. The armed services committee focuses on national security space."
Further, neither private-sector space stuff nor space academia fall neatly into these silos. A lot of reform efforts have focused on fixing one part in isolation, and ending up missing out on the big picture.
"This bill tries to look at space comprehensively," Bridenstine said.
ASRA is intended not just to collect all the puzzle pieces, but to also see if those puzzle pieces fit together usefully. How do changes in Federal Aviation Administration regulation of commercial spaceflight interact with the way NASA pays to get people to the International Space Station? Can the Department of Defense's need for weather satellite data be leveraged to do anything useful for NOAA? And so on. Integrating all those pieces is a massive project, and having a standard reference from which to work would be extremely valuable.
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Once ASRA has collected all these different reforms, polished them up, and integrated them, the next logical step is getting the legislation passed and put into practice, right? Of course not — this is Washington, DC, not some well-oiled paragon of parliamentary rule like the Bartertown Thunderdome.
Involved in this whole process are perhaps a half-dozen agencies, each with its own piece of the space enterprise. There are also divisions between the House and Senate, each with its own divisions between Democrats and Republicans. So it's going to be nigh well impossible to pass anything that affects a big swath of the government without an enormous uphill battle. Also, it's an election year. Even Bridenstine admits it's "not probable at all that this bill will pass in its original form."
But there's a bit of clever here. If you can't pass all of it at once, then maybe it's possible to pass reforms in pieces.
"When we pass the National Defense Authorization Act, we can take provisions from this bill that have consensus and insert them in [that bill]," Bridenstine said. "When we do a NOAA reauthorization, we can insert components there. When we do a NASA reauthorization, we can insert components there."
Part of the trick is getting someone to actually shop all these reform ideas around to different committees, but Bridenstine is pretty well positioned for that. He sits on the science committee and the space subcommittee, which oversees NASA, and chairs the environment subcommittee, which overseas NOAA. And on the defense side, he's on the strategic forces subcommittee, which takes care of national security space architectures.
"This bill will be a living document where new information can be kept, and we can update it every year with new and better ideas," he said. "So basically, even if none of the provisions in this bill are adopted this year, but the bill ends up with a slew of killer ideas next year, then it's still progress."
Washington's most defining feature is, of course, unremitting partisan hatred, but Bridenstine has some reasons for cautious optimism. Since the bill is intended as a repository for ideas to be doled out over the years, there should be room to negotiate and bring people on board nice and easy–like.
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Further, congressional work on space is pretty bipartisan. This is not to say that Congress is (more or less) cooperative on space because it's unimportant and the stakes aren't that high. Society relies on space for way, way more stuff than most people probably realize. If all the satellites magically stopped working, for instance, we'd see a global crash the likes of which would make the 2008 Great Recession look like a fender-bender in Indianapolis. Yet while we all appreciate the GPS on our phones and enjoy the occasional Mars rover, space doesn't animate a lot of hefty political mojo.
Which may, for now at least, be a good thing. If space becomes a major topic of conversation or attracts heavyweight political interest, even the smallest bits of regulatory reform will be seized by angry people — along with their well-paid professional antagonists — looking for an excuse to raise a ruckus over every damn thing.
"One of my big goals in this bill is make sure the American public understands how critical space is in every aspect of our lives," Bridenstine said. "[That's] lost on a lot of the American public. Because of that, it's lost on a lot of members of Congress."
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Photo via NASA