Two recent pieces published in the bellwether of Beltway conventional wisdom, the Washington Post, compel me to respond. The first article focuses on the demise of the aerospace manufacturer North American Aviation (founded in 1928), the company that built the Apollo and Space Shuttle spacecraft. The author’s intent is to explore how and why America’s middle class became “lost.” The second piece notes the completion of a new rocket engine test stand (followed by its immediate “mothballing”) at Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center. Seemingly unconnected, they collectively illustrate a breakdown in the competence and reliability of modern American news reporting. Due to inadequate research, the writers do not produce thoughtful, logical analysis and thus, have failed in their duty and obligation to inform their readership.
The article on North American’s operations in Downey California is part of a broader series that looks at changes in the American economy, so one might not expect a thorough analysis of the history of the space program. On the other hand, such history is relevant (as is often the case) to the topic addressed and thus, vital to the questions asked in the series – especially when the author begins by asking, “How did this happen?”
North American Aviation was one of the giants of the nation’s aerospace industry. Although famous for its involvement in the Apollo program, North American developed several historically significant military aircraft including the P-51 Mustang fighter, F-86 Sabre jet fighter, and the X-15 rocket plane –vehicles that set new records for performance and versatility. With the advent of the space age, North American not only built the Apollo Command Module, but also the groundbreaking S-II second stage of the Saturn V moon rocket. Practically hand-made, this large cryogenic hydrogen-oxygen stage was a technical milestone, functioning near flawlessly. North American used this technical and human expertise to develop and build the Space Shuttle, a vehicle initially intended as one part of a larger transportation system meant to extend our reach throughout cislunar space.
Much more than simply a manufacturing plant, North American’s presence in the Los Angeles area was symbolic of the large-scale, dispersed high-technology aerospace industry in southern California. Jobs were plentiful for skilled, competent workers returning from the war and they flocked to the West coast to settle and raise their families (many of whom also went on to work in the aerospace business). Numerous small aircraft, space, and technology firms could be found in the region, supplying parts and subsystems to North American and other major space contractors. In part, this activity was responsible for the expansive job and economic boom of the Pacific coast – activity driven by the defense needs of a nation now locked in a global geopolitical struggle with the Soviet Union.
With the collapse of the Berlin Wall marking the end of the Cold War, it was inevitable that the aerospace industry would contract. Recognizing this – and also recognizing the critical importance of this technology and research sector to America’s security – in 1989, President George H. W. Bush proposed the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), featuring a permanent return to the Moon and a human Mars mission. Such an ambitious set of space goals would revitalize the nation’s civil space program (giving it a renewed sense of purpose and direction) and maintain a minimal level of the technological-industrial infrastructure and the skilled workforce necessary to innovate and ensure our national security. After President Bush lost his bid for re-election, Congress and the Clinton administration abandoned the SEI and shifted the so-called “peace dividend” (i.e., the funding previously allocated for national defense in the Cold War) into entitlements. The aerospace industry (and the jobs therein) subsequently underwent a major collapse and through a decade of mergers and acquisitions, emerged in the diminished form it takes today.
None of this is mentioned in the Washington Post article. Instead, it wistfully recounts that once there was a factory in Downey that built spacecraft and provided good paying jobs for people straight out of high school. The piece fails to note that once there was an entire high-tech industry in southern California, one that enabled America to become a superpower and prevail in a 50-year struggle against what was undoubtedly an “Evil Empire.” Rather than focusing on the ramifications of those historical facts, the author instead meanders into a rambling, Occupy Wall Street-type class warfare diatribe about the lack of jobs in Downey paying a “living wage.” New Space guru Elon Musk makes a cameo appearance in this doleful tale, but only to double-cross the city fathers when he decides to build his new Tesla electric car plant in the Bay Area, rather than at the old North American Aviation site.
The other Washington Post story explores the construction and then near-immediate abandonment of the new $349 million A-3 test stand at NASA Stennis Space Center. This facility, designed to vacuum test the new J-2X rocket engine (a modern variant of the engine that propelled astronauts to the Moon in the Saturn S-IVB stage) was built as part of the now-cancelled Constellation program. The story relates how – even after Project Constellation had been “cancelled” – decisions were made at several points to go forward with the construction of the test stand. The piece repeats several myths about changes done to the space program under the current administration, something we have now come to expect in this reworked “news” coverage.
The article relates the fiscal difficulties of building the facility (including the inevitable cost growth associated with changing requirements and realities) but then re-writes the history of President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) – the 2004 program designed to return Americans to the Moon and prepare for missions to Mars and other destinations. It is implied that Bush called for missions to the Moon by 2015 (true enough – mentioned in his speech), but it does not note that date was not a deadline, but a guideline. It repeats the standard erroneous interpretation of the 2009 Augustine committee that lunar return was so under-funded that NASA might never get there. In fact, that committee used cost-estimating rules and accounting techniques almost guaranteed to give inflated-cost, late delivery results. In consequence, the President had the cover of “expert analysis” to do what he had desired to do from the beginning – cancel the VSE.
However, a single Presidential speech cannot cancel a national strategic decision twice endorsed by two different Congresses (in the 2005 and 2008 NASA Authorization Acts). Congress needed to be onboard with the President’s plan to abandon the VSE. Several members were acutely aware that by terminating NASA involvement with building and operating heavy lift rockets, a hard-won capability relevant to national security was being permanently discarded without due consideration. To patch over this gaping wound, Congress re-established a program to develop a heavy lift booster, largely on the basis of testimony that any human missions beyond LEO would ultimately require some type of heavy lift capability. Common mythology among space observers is that establishing the Space Launch System (SLS – derisively referred to as the “Senate Launch System” by its most ardent critics) was all about protecting jobs in selected states and Congressional districts. In fact, some members understood the national strategic concerns. A launch system is not simply a pile of rocket hardware – it is an industrial capability consisting of tooling, supporting facilities and infrastructure, and most importantly, human capital and experience – assets that once dissipated are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reassemble. It must be noted that Congress never “canceled lunar return” – human cislunar missions (including to the lunar surface) are still part of the language of the 2010 NASA Authorization strategic direction (not that you will hear of it in the news coverage).
It is not at all clear that the A-3 test stand is the worthless boondoggle portrayed in this article meant to ferret out and highlight waste in our ever-dwindling discretionary spending fraction of the federal budget. We will need some type of advanced upper stage to send people on missions beyond low Earth orbit – the alleged strategic direction of our nation’s civil space program. That upper stage will have to have an engine very much like the J-2X (if not that item itself). Moreover, since new engines must be tested, NASA now has the facilities to develop it. Of course, not using a new and expensive facility is silly, but the blame for that does not lie with the people who built it but with the ones who decided not to honor the commitments of the previous national leadership.
I find these two stories – no doubt considered by some to be fine examples of investigative journalism – to be poorly thought out, cliché-ridden, illogical and suffering from a lack of understanding and no appreciation for the history of their respective topics. I would like to think such reporting is the exception rather than the rule, but alas, I find this type of coverage (especially in regard to the space program, an area in which I work) all too common these days. It is especially frustrating because there are times when journalists do the required work and get things right. Regrettably, most news reports on space are assembled by gathering some quotes from the usual go-to sources, mixed well with current conventional wisdom on how something was or is “unaffordable,” and then duly garnished with platitudes about how we’ll have people on Mars in 15-20 years. So, just go about your daily lives and try not to think too hard about the two incompatible things you’ve been told – that Congress is spending NASA money on wasteful pork and that we will have people on Mars in 15-20 years. If that doesn’t compute, perhaps further inquiry about what has been (and is being) reported is in order.
With so much being omitted or misrepresented about the space program, it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that reportage in other fields of human endeavor is also suspect. Technical shallowness, exacerbated by ignorance of history and old-fashioned laziness, leaves us witnessing the demise of yet another national security imperative – an informed electorate.