Supporters of the just announced White House policy on space are turning warily to the inevitable Congressional pushback. There should be little solace that the most vocal resistance coming from the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue is good old fashioned parochial concerns--meaning Florida, Texas and most of all, Alabama.
The chorus of disapproval began even before the official announcement. Republican Senator Shelby of Alabama called the proposed reforms, including ending the Ares 1--the death knell of the American space program. And Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida signaled his equally powerful opposition to the hard and fast retirement of the space shuttle fleet after five more missions. So too Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas.
Given the opposition from senior politicians often supportive of the NASA budget, the challenge will be forging a credible path through Congress to enact the Obama reforms. It seems to me that if the opposition is bipartisan, so too must be the support.
For a practical strategy I suggest that senior Administration officials look no further than Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education and arguably the closest friend of Barrack Obama in the cabinet. The former head of the Chicago school system and basketball buddy of the president, the Education Secretary has angered many educational traditionalists by embracing pro-market reforms for our school system. He's even taken on the Democratic teachers union in pushing for school competition and greater freedom to hire and fire principals and teachers.
Duncan has found himself in a difficult political fight, with many Congressional Democrats lined up in opposition. But here is the point that really caught my attention. To get his message of free-market educational reform passed, the Education Secretary has been crisscrossing the country with two supporters: the former (Republican) speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the civil rights (Democrat) advocate Al Sharpton. How's that for a performing duo?
The strategy of enlisting the support of big time speakers from the left and the right makes political sense when Obama is embracing values often associated with conservative Republicans. In this case, it is educational reforms.
But so too with the space program. The reforms announced by Obama represent the greatest effort to push NASA into market reforms since the Reagan Administration managed to pull the space agency out of the satellite launch business, thus saving our domestic launch business from collapse. Commercial services and ongoing space operations performed by the private sector, with a credible and cost efficient technology plan for exploration, are all conservative principals first laid down during the 1980's. So if it is possible with education, why not with space?
The White House and Administrator Bolden need to seek out support in reforming NASA from the likes of former speaker Gingrich, former Congressman Bob Walker and a whole host of economically conservative Republicans, including, more than likely, Congressman Ron Paul and Senator John McCain. Nor is it limited to politicians. Organizations ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the Cato Institute should be supportive of opening the space frontier to market forces.
Political opposition to the Obama space proposals will be vocal and determined. The best counteroffensive will be a genuine bipartisan assault lead by the former four time shuttle astronaut Administrator Charles Bolden.
Now is the time for the White House to let Bolden reach out across the aisle and invite those conservative Republicans who share in the vision of a more competitive U.S. space industry to join in educating the public and Congress on the value of the president's space reforms.