This past week, Vice President Mike Pence called for NASA to return human beings to the Moon by 2024. Back when I worked at NASA, I would’ve been thrilled by such an announcement and would have started speculated immediately about what it would mean for the program and, self-interestedly, my job. With the benefit (now) of 16 years in the business, I’ve learned to respond to such announcements with a little more caution.
An Announcement is Not a Policy
As I’m certain someone at NASA said to me, the biggest difference between a statement made at a press conference and an actual policy change is the budget. We’ve had plenty of lofty space-related rhetoric in the years since John F. Kennedy (here and here, most famously). However, not all of that rhetoric has had a budget proposed or passed to back it up. “Talk is cheap” is as relevant to politics as it is to your daily life.
Since Kennedy asked Congress for additional money in 1961 for the goal “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth,” multiple grand space efforts have been proposed.
- Ronald Reagan called for a space station within a decade in 1984. The program nearly died in 1992 without getting past the viewgraph (presentation format before PowerPoint) stage. We didn’t start launching hardware until after the Cold War ended and didn’t finish assembling it until 2010.
- In 1989, George H.W. Bush proposed a massive Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), which called for spending what was then the entire NASA budget ($15 billion) over the following 30 years to build bases on the Moon and Mars. The 30-year price tag would have been $450 billion. Congress balked at the price tag, and the Initiative died.
- In 2004, George W. Bush proposed the Vision for Space Exploration, which was billed as a long-term program to finish the International Space Station; retire the Space Shuttle; and send Americans to the “Moon, Mars, and beyond.” The loss of Space Shuttle Columbia made Congress more open to alternatives, so the Constellation Program was born. NASA started designing and building rockets (Ares) and spacecraft (Orion), getting as far as a test launch in 2009 before a new president, Barack Obama, cancelled Constellation to put his own stamp on U.S. space policy.
- In 2010, favoring more private-sector activity in space, President Obama cancelled Constellation, proposing instead to privatize rockets to Earth orbit while NASA concentrated on traveling to the asteroids. While NASA changed direction to meet this initiative, it also had to respond to Congress, which refused to let Constellation’s Orion spacecraft and heavy-lift rocket (now the Space Launch System or SLS) die. This situation demonstrated the power of our mixed form of government: the President can propose policies, but the legislative branch has “the power of the purse.”
- In 2017, President Trump once again made the Moon the destination for SLS in Orion, cancelling the asteroid initiative. In 2018, the administration also proposed a space station in orbit above the Moon to support human exploration there, currently called the Lunar Gateway.
- Meanwhile, the commercial space launch efforts started by Bush 2 and continued under Obama are approaching the point of sending humans to space from American soil for the first time since 2011.
- And now, in 2019, we have another proposal calling for humans to the Moon in five years.
I apologize for the extended history lesson, but the bottom line should be clear: these things take a long time to happen, and sometimes they don’t happen at all.
So What Does This Mean for Me?
A technical writer in any technology field that gets the government’s attention should keep three key things in mind:
- There is often a gap between aspiration and achievement.
- Unless there’s a national emergency (e.g., war), Congress prefers to fund the status quo.
- The President proposes, Congress disposes–or not.
So if you’re expecting your program, department, or job to change immediately, cool your jets. There is a process to follow, and it can take weeks, months, or even years before the changes filter down to you.
On a more practical level, depending on where you work (and for whom), you might or might not already know when a major policy announcement is in the works. A new President will ask the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), “What great thing could NASA do during my administration?” OSTP will then get to work: proposing ideas, working within the known constraints of the current NASA budget, what support a new initiative is likely to receive from Congress, and what sort of work would be required to make X initiative happen. OSTP will have people call or visit the NASA centers quietly to get some technical background for questions they can’t answer. The people at the centers who know the answers will compile the answers and some lucky person (sometimes that was me) would write up a report explaining in politician-friendly language what can be done, when, and for how many of the taxpayers’ dollars.
After the Big Speech, of course, the agency can then proceed in the open and request more formal technical studies of the President’s new program/policy, which will then be presented formally to Congress. Hearings are held, budgets are proposed and debated, and votes are cast. The time to start paying attention is when an agency’s funding or authorization law (the public law Congress signs that tells the agency what its priorities are) come up for a vote. Then it becomes real. And unless you’re working in the policy field in Washington, DC, you won’t know how it will effect your job until someone above you in the organization tells you.
So if you hear on the news about a national chief executive or member of the administration announce a policy related to your particular field, relax. The changes won’t be affecting you for a while yet…if at all.