Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

It Can Happen Here

After reading Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, I am starting to see how his arguments apply to the business of manned spaceflight and space launch. America's space program was born from the Cold War defense establishment, and for the foreseeable future it will remain a "fascist" space program.

Jonah Goldberg points out that most "fascist" societies share common traits: the mobilization of society under "the moral equivalent of war," the "coordination" of government and corporate power, and most importantly, "the religion of the state." All three traits are systemic to America's space program.

The glory days of NASA covered the period from Project Mercury in 1959 through the end of Project Apollo in 1975. As Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff, every manned spaceflight represented a round of "single combat" with the Soviets. It was the moral equivalent of war. Project Apollo served to mobilize American industry in a way that was surpassed only by the Manhattan Project.

Through Project Apollo, America dealt a severe blow to the Soviet Union in the greater Cold War. But in order to beat the Soviets, America had to become like the Soviet Union and beat them at their own game. Apollo was a crash program with no commercial application or opportunity for private-sector investment. Its goals were largely centered on national pride, or the religion of the state. After appeasing the gods of statolatry, Apollo was allowed to wither and die.

Fascism continues into the shuttle era. In order to justify the enormous expense of the space shuttle borne by the American taxpayers, and to get the flight rate up to levels which would make the vehicle economical, the shuttle was used to launch commercial payloads during its early years. The thought of a government-funded, government-operated vehicle launching commercial payloads should be anathema to freedom-loving Americans. But the shuttle served its need as "the moral equivalent of war." After all, the Russian efforts to duplicate the shuttle capabilities with Energia-Buran helped to bankrupt the Soviet Union. And the shuttle & space station continue to serve as symbols of national pride, promoting the religion of the state.

As the shuttle program winds down, Fascism will survive well into Project Constellation and possibly make its way to the moon again. The Ares-Orion stack is a prime example of "coordination" between the government and an oligarchy of large corporations. Every surviving aerospace giant gets a piece from the pork barrel. The worst offender is ATK, who is being paid hand-over-fist to produce an all-new solid booster that is the cornerstone of a horribly-suboptimized crew launcher. The line separating NASA and ATK grows fuzzier on a daily basis, as figures like Scott Horowitz continue to pass back-and-forth through the revolving door. Even Orbital Sciences gets a big handout in the form of a COTS prize to develop what's supposed to be a commercial launcher, Taurus II. And the official "state religion" within NASA is the dogma of Mike Griffin's "infallible, genius plan" for getting us back to the moon.

I'm not saying that these examples of fascism within the space program are all bad. For instance, the government subsidies of Atlas & Delta, and the eventual merger of their production, were necessary evils for ensuring DoD's continued space access. But unless there is a clear national-defense rationale, it's really hard to justify the continuing fascism within America's space efforts.

The writing is on the wall for the fascist space program. The news coming from Project Constellation is a continuing stream of schedule slips and budget shortfalls. The patience of Congress will not be infinite. At the same time, firms like SpaceX and Bigelow continue to develop not only commercial space vehicles, but commercial applications for said space vehicles. In time, the American space program will transition from fascism to freedom. And while freedom might not get us to the moon in the course of a decade, it can sustain itself much longer than six landings.

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