Is NASA a science agency or a giant subsidy for aerospace corporations?

Trump’s nomination for NASA chief, GOP Rep. James Bridenstine, thinks the latter. Its future hangs in the balance

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published September 10, 2017 8:00AM (EDT)

Jim Bridenstine (United States Congress/Getty/jamesbenet)
Jim Bridenstine (United States Congress/Getty/jamesbenet)

Astronauts beware: President Donald Trump picked Congressman James Bridenstine to lead the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Though he still awaits confirmation in the Senate, the Oklahoma Republican with no background in the hard sciences seems an odd choice; Bridenstine's most relevant experience is his tenure as executive director of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum & Planetarium.

What might we expect from Bridenstine as NASA administrator? Bridenstine’s politics are fairly in line with most Republicans' nowadays — which is to say, he’s a far-right, pro-limited government, climate science skeptic. In a 2016 interview he said the climate “has always changed,” pointing to “periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today.” He currently serves on the the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, whose GOP chairman has called on Trump to cease all of NASA’s climate change studies.

Bridenstine is against gay marriage, against gun control, against regulating greenhouse gas emissions, in favor of repealing Obamacare, against a woman’s right to choose, and against any kind of tax increases even on the wealthy. In short, he’s against anything that might stop the ceaseless redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, or anything that might question free-market fundamentalism. His short political career demonstrates a total lack of ability to form any independent opinion not preordained by the conservative billionaire-funded think-tanks that promote the decrepit political ideology to which he adheres. Hence, like most fundamentalists, he is the antithesis of a scientist.

Unsurprisingly, Bridenstine is very interested in privatizing NASA, a right-wing wet dream for years now. One wonders if this was an independently formed opinion of his, or if he is doing the bidding of his funders; over the course of his political career, he’s raised $89,000 from the defense and aerospace industry — precisely the industry that stands to benefit from the privatization and commercialization of space.

You can’t get away with literally privatizing an entire federal agency — too many would cry foul — but you can defang the entire operation and outsource most of the agency’s functions. This is what is currently happening to Los Alamos National Laboratory. And it’s also why NASA started using SpaceX and Orbital ATK to shuttle supplies to the International Space Station (thanks, Obama). Bridenstine subscribes to the conservative ethos: Don’t question the logic that the free market can do better, even when that logic explodes on the launchpad.

But while the commercialization of ISS resupply missions is recent, the privatization of NASA has been a long time coming. That’s because its rockets, or at least some of their components, have been manufactured by private companies for years. Some science missions have even had private contractors manage them. It just goes to show that NASA has always been a bit of a hybrid organization: part giant subsidy to the aerospace industry, part public science organ.

A democratic NASA led by scientists, for scientists, would probably have far fewer manned missions and International Space Stations and far more robot missions — as robots are much better and much cheaper at producing great science. To put that in context: the International Space Station — which, aside from housing the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, has produced little in the way of science — is the most expensive object ever built at $150 billion, $58 billion of which came via NASA. The Hubble Space Telescope, perhaps the richest scientific instrument in history in terms of astronomy research produced, cost $1.5 billion; the New Horizons mission that photographed Pluto and Charon in unprecedented detail cost half that, at $700 million.

Why does the privatization of space matter? The answer to that really depends on what you believe NASA is. If you believe that NASA is a giant subsidy to aerospace and military defense contractors like Boeing, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, and you think the point of government is to take public money (and democratic control over it) and put that money in private, unaccountable hands, then privatizing large swaths of NASA presumably sounds like a great thing. If you think the agency is about science and engineering in the public interest, then privatizing large chunks of it is a phenomenally stupid idea — as the private sector is by its nature incapable of producing “science” that isn’t directly designed to fatten profit margins. The idea of “private” science is inherently absurd; science is by definition in the public interest.

Moreover, when knowledge — for instance, engineering knowledge involved in building complex rockets and satellites — is cordoned off within the private sector, it tends to stay there. NASA and its academic collaborators have an incredible body of institutional knowledge when it comes to building rockets, satellites, telescopes and spacesuits. When the design process is privatized, public, collaborative knowledge is transformed into private patents, trapped forever beyond the event horizon of lawyers and profit margins.

There is a greater, looming concern to opening up the privatization of space, too. Currently, many among the corporate elite — particularly Silicon Valley types — are trying to condition the public at large to believe that the future of space is private, commercial industry. Numerous aerospace startups — and even asteroid mining concerns — have sprouted up in the past decade. Why now? Perhaps they were enthused by the Obama administration’s (literal) laissez-faire attitude toward space commercialization. But also, an increase in income inequality has concentrated wealth in oligarchical corporations that can afford the insanely expensive prospects of investing in space.

In any case, the current enthusiasm for space privateersmen, exemplified in the public adulation of CEOs like Elon Musk, is a remarkable shift in public sentiment. In 1966, the United Nations agreed on an "Outer Space Treaty," which stated explicitly that "the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind," and that "outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States." Lofty rhetoric, indeed, and at odds with policies that encourage gifting space resources so that private interests may profit, and likewise at odds with Elon Musk's troubling vision of the future.

NASA's leadership isn't just going to affect the future of space privatization. Much of NASA’s scientific function will be in danger under Bridenstine’s watch, too. The science that NASA does, inasmuch as it is politicized, is subject to the whims of any given administration. Because the right wing is devoted to keeping capitalism afloat in any way possible, they are devoted to suppressing the belief that the negative externalities of a capitalist society even exist — particularly, that climate change is caused by man-made emissions. Hence, the right suppresses climate science to maintain the fantasy of capitalism as a just and sustainable economic system. The suppression of this science is not really about anger toward the scientists, but because it questions the right's fundamentalism toward revering and maintaining the economic order. Bridenstine’s own disdain for climate science and lack of “belief” in it clearly bodes poorly for NASA’s role as a science agency.

There’s a disconnect in Bridenstine’s ostensive idea about what NASA is, and what it does. Science, as an ideal, is apolitical. Of course, results and findings often harbor political implications, and the doers of science frequently impose their own beliefs and biases on their research. But to be a scientist, and moreover, to lead an institution that does science, requires cultivating a certain apolitical state when it comes to research output. Science and fundamentalism are incompatible. 

For all its faults, NASA was always a bit different from any other government agency. Its probes and missions inspired billions to look up at the stars and imagine a different, better future — one in which people of all stripes collaborate in the name of science and exploration. That makes its slow decline into a subsidy for the space oligarchs of the future all the more disheartening.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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