Space Policy Recognition Lag

There was an interesting piece about foreign policy linked to by one of the blogs I read on a regular basis (can’t remember who now). The piece was talking about the delay between when changes to the global order happen, and when elites finally start recognizing that something has changed:

Now… it seems to me that because of inertia or vested interests, members of the elites always fail to recognize the eroding influence of a declining great power. Economists refer to Recognition lag when they discuss the time lag between when an actual economic shock, such as sudden boom or bust occurs, and when it is recognized by economists, central bankers and the government. A similar time lag may explain why so many pundits are continuing to demand and/or expect the Obama Administration to reassert U.S. influence abroad and “do something” about this or that (depending on one’s favorite foreign policy agenda).

Interestingly enough, in a foreign policy seminar I led a while ago I asked my students to conduct a content analysis of how the leading powers were covered by the major international dailies in the aftermath of WWII. They were astonished to discover that until the mid 1950’s both Great Britain and France (by then bankrupted economic and military powers) were described as “great powers” more times than the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Only in the late 1950’s was “great” being dropped as an adjective when discussing the Brits and the French and “super” was applied to the Americans and the Soviets. A example of recognition lag in foreign policy.

I’ve been saying for some time now, that there may be a similar analogy in space policy discussions–the politics behind Shuttle Derived Launch Vehicles.

For many years, people have pointed out that the main reason why the Shuttle is still flying today is mostly due to inertia, and because it provides lots of jobs in important congressional districts.  The implied belief being that this will always continue to be such, so it doesn’t matter if a Shuttle Derived vehicle makes any technical or economic sense, becuase “political realities” will always guarantee that NASA employs tens of thousands of employees and contractors in much the same way as the are today.

This is historically naive in my opinion.

Much as the UK and France had their influence decrease after WWII, there have been many changes in our nation’s political structure recently.  The belief seems to go that somehow the loss of power by the party of which Utah, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi are all part will not effect in any way the political calculus on how NASA will proceed from here.  That retiring or outgoing people in key senate and congressional committees don’t matter.  That Senators and Presidents will stick out their necks to defend the jobs of people who didn’t vote for them.

While it is possible that inertia might prevail, I think the reality is that the winds have already changed in Washington, and that it’s just a matter of time before more space advocates start actually realizing this.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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16 Responses to Space Policy Recognition Lag

  1. Harlan says:

    No kidding. It even (as a taxpayer) astonishes me that one of the major design criteria for the “radical” Direct 2.0 architecture is that it preserves the existing shuttle workforce! WTF?

  2. mike shupp says:

    Actually the notion was ALWAYS nonsense. Lots of aerospace workers were laid off back around 1930 (there was some piddling little stock market problem in October 1929 which took a while to surmount). No one really complained. Lots of aerospace workers were let go in the late 1940’s after the US government gave up the idea of building 30,000 military aircraft a year for some silly reason which now escapes me. This actually bothered no one at all. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the NASA budget was subsantiallly clipped and the defense budget, and many many aerospace employees — about 1/3 of the workforce — were discharged about as quickly as it could be arranged. The country was filled with people who regarded this as A Really Good Thing; newspaper employment ads featured prominent dark text reading NO AEROSPACE EXPERIENCE DESIRED. After a long dip, aerospace employment resumed rising in the Reagan administration, only to fall significantly during the early 1990’s (under the elder President Bush) and then at a slower pace through the two Clinton administrations as the number of aerospace firms fell. Rather than objecting, most people interested in politics and economics hailed this as “A Peace Dividend.” It’s a reasonable bet that around 2010 we will see another large contraction in the aerospace business as the US retreats from wars in the Mid East, and another reasonable bet that very few people outside the industry are going to bemoan the lost employment at Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop, etc.

    I do understand that politicians like to run about proclaiming that they’ve personally intervened to to preserve hundreds of “good high paying” jobs at this NASA site and that, but (a) politicians claim credit when meat-packing plants and toy manufacturers hire people as well, and (b) there has never ever been a time since possibly the middle 1960’s when American politicians and civilians actually proclaimed any need to INCREASE the aerospace workforce.

    We’re in the midst of a recession. Hundreds of thousands of workers are losing jobs each month. People who point to the 20,000 workers at NASA and the 40,000 workers at NASA contractors — many of whom are old enough to retire in the next few years, and many many others who can expect to be laid off — and describe this as a Federal job protection scheme, are ignoring past history and present reality.

  3. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    I actually like the Direct guys, but I agree with you. Their fixation on “no contractor left behind” seems a bit silly. I think they have a solid case that their SDV architecture makes more sense than Constellation. And I’m definitely on-board with their stuff about propellant depots. But the whole focus on being a jobs program for Shuttle workers is just silly. Sure some of those people have critical skills that would be very useful for space exploration per se (as opposed to shuttle-specific skills that arent’ really that relevant at all). And most of those would likely get jobs regardless of which approach was taken. The problem is that a large percentage of the shuttle workforce is highly trained technicians who are trained to do very shuttle specific jobs that would have to be completely retrained anyway….

    Oh well.


  4. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Yeah, the only way we’re going to see an increase in aerospace engineering workforces is if aerospace can start creating new and expanding markets. If we were actually in the process of becoming a spacefaring nation, you’d naturally see a lot more aerospace employment, and most of it would be commercial, not just governmental or government contractors. The problem is that space has stagnated into a place that nobody sees as commercially interesting, so only government funding keeps things limping along.


  5. Brad says:

    Interesting theory, but it doesn’t explain the persistance of the Shuttle during the Clinton years. In fact I believe Shuttle employment during the Clinton years gradually declined (a partial reason why the Columbia disaster eventually occured).

    I don’t think the Shuttle persisted because it was a jobs program. I think it persisted because of a lack of vision and tight budgets. That was a failure of politics.

    I believe those who today claim the importance of Shuttle as a jobs program are really just rationalizing support of particular launch vehicle architectures.

  6. Bill White says:

    Suppose on February 1st, a newly sworn in President Obama went “all in” with a propellant depot architecture. How long would it take to get depot designs to a sufficient technology readiness level to launch a lunar landing mission?

    = = =

    Since the lack of commercial interest in human spaceflight appears to be a global condition, not merely an American one, how can NASA and the shuttle infrastructure be blamed for all of that? If there was money to be made using Bigelow habs for micro-gravity manufacturing (for example) why wouldn’t the industrialists simply

    (a) buy existing Russian launchers; or

    (b) build NewSpace style launchers overseas?

  7. Bill,
    Suppose on February 1st, a newly sworn in President Obama went “all in” with a propellant depot architecture. How long would it take to get depot designs to a sufficient technology readiness level to launch a lunar landing mission?

    A lot sooner than NASA could build a new HLV. I seem to recall Dallas Bienhoff suggesting 4-5 years for Boeing’s approach. And LM has some that could also be implemented quickly if the money were there. If you do it in a way to try and encourage it to be fielded commercially, it could take a bit longer. But anyway you slice it, it would be ready long before NASA was ready to go back to the moon–it isn’t the gating factor.

    Regarding the global commercial spaceflight situation…buying Russian isn’t that great of a solution anymore, since the prices are continuing to go up, and were never that good at all. The shear fact that people have been buying tickets at the prices involved is quite amazing to me, and there’s every reason to believe that there is elasticity in that market.

    As to why there aren’t foreign NewSpace launchers…I think its a complicated question, and you know it. Commercial space just really hasn’t taken root much outside of the US (with a few notable exceptions). Is that because there isn’t demand, and no interest? Or is it for other cultural, historical, and economic reasons? My bet though is that if you start seeing enough success with US personal spaceflight firms, that you’ll eventually start seeing similar ventures oversees as well.


  8. Chris Winter says:


    I have the feeling that “recognition lag” is at least partly an illusion. Political leaders in Britain and France may well have realized that things had changed after World War II, but held to the “Great Power” rhetoric in order to reassure their constituencies.

    ( The source, by the way, was Leon Kadar’s piece for The American Conservative, here: )

    Observers, especially present-day ones like Kadar, would not necessarily be able to see beyond the rhetoric to what the leadership really understood about the situation.

    With respect to America’s aerospace industry, it’s clear that its decline was recognized years ago. Recall AW&ST’s series of articles on the “Crisis in Aerospace.” So I hesitate to say that even NASA leadership fails to recognize what’s happening. It may be more of a “confession lag.”

    (OT: Does anyone else wonder at the timing of the release of the recent report on the Columbia Tragedy? That’s not the sort of thing it would take a competent engineer five years to figure out.)

    Of course bureaucratic inertia plays a part — as does a valid concern about keeping up morale and workmanship. Both would suffer during a too-abrupt transition, with potentially devastating impact on the country at large.

    But I agree that political support for human space exploration has been declining for years. And I expect that NASA will look very different at the end of Obama’s presidency.

  9. On a possibly related note, there was this article implying that Obama (or his administration) is considering melding NASA and AF space efforts to counter a challenge from China (as in a new “Moon Race”):

    A lot of the article is a rehash of the NASA transition team debacle, but the notion that the new administration would combine AF and NASA efforts and interests in order to accelerate America’s return to the Moon is either intriguing or baffling, depending on one’s point of view. Also, how serious, in the short term, is the ascendant China’s space program as compared to American (or Russian) plans?

  10. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    The Bloomberg story has issues. There is some talk that Obama wants to evaluate using EELVs for launching Orion. There’s a huge difference between that and wanting to “meld NASA and the AF space efforts”.


  11. Habitat Hermit says:

    Roderick Reilly over at Space Politics Rand Simberg says he’ll do a dessication of that Bloomberg article so I’ll recommend reading that when it becomes available.

  12. Right, thanks everybody, especially Rand. I read it. Why am I not surprised?

  13. tankmodeler says:

    Well, the Direct guys are keeping the shuttle workforce because one of their basic design criteria was to maximise their compliance to the US rules that wanted the VSE solution to maximise retention of the SHuttle workforce. I can’t locate it right now, but it is there in the legislation in black & white. If you predicate yourself on meeting that requirement to the best of your ability, then Direct is what you end up with.

    You can agree or disagree as to whether they _should_ be trying to meet that requirement, but try they are and Direct is a pretty good response to that requirement.

    Regarding whether keeping the shuttle hardware to keep the shuttle workforce employed is a good idea, well, while you might be right that there is an institutional lag and that the shuttle and it’s workforce needn’t be retained (for all kinds of likely true reasons), the key point is that both Congress & NASA are part of that lag. And they’re the ones buying a new program. Whether they’re right or wrong, if they believe that keeping the workforce is a key requirement, then it is, at least as far as any new program that they are buying is concerned.

    Finally, and I mean no disrespect, Harlan, but neither Direct nor the two Jupiter vehilces can be considered “radical”. They are quite conservative extrapolations of mostly existing hardware. They are not the most efficient nor the best way to get to orbit or the Moon, they are a relatively straght-forward extension & rearrangement of existing capabilities for a new task.

    Comparatively, EELVs & a prop depot are far more radical and something like a VASIMIR tug for cislunar ops is pure “2001” stuff. Both of these are exceptionally rational approaches to the real problems of sustainably operating between the Earth and the Moon, but compared to a J-120, they’re tin-foil hat crazy. 🙂


  14. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    The interesting thing about the legislation they mentioned is that it left a huge and intentional caveat to allow a non-Shuttle derived architecture. It said to reuse the Shuttle workforce, infrastructure, etc, etc ‘inasmuch as is compatible with a successful program’. Ie, it left the backdoor open that if they thought the program couldn’t be done successfully using SDLVs, that they could opt out. And especially with the budgetary climate we should be in, that may very well be pulled.

    My point was that while I’m not sure that Congress is going to up and remove that requirement, most of the people in Congress who would cry foul if NASA took the caveat and didn’t go the SDLV route are gone, or now apathetic.


  15. tankmodeler says:

    I hear you and, to be sure, as a Canadian, I’m not as up on US federal politics as may be needed, but isn’t the support for most of the space program pretty bipartisan? I get the impression (could be wrong) that votes from both parties are likely to be needed to get anything paid for by Congress, notwithstanding who is in actual control of the Gov’t. I have very little expectation that Obama will tell a new administrator “get rid of Ares”. He’ll probably be told, “Get something flying sooner than 2015 and, by the way, you’re not going to get more than 20 billion, total, for a new launcher or launchers, so choose wisely.” That leaves a huge scope for change, but if the 20 billion has to be wrangled past a bipartisan group that includes people from Utah & FLorida & Louisiana, you can bet that they will care about the local jobs even in Obama (and/or his team) don’t particularly.


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