The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Lunar base illustration
The exploration vision is not about space so much as revitalizing the American economy, Young argues. (credit: NASA)

The vision and national survival

Americans, at least those who think it is in our best interest to revitalize our position in space exploration, have had some time to read and mull over “A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover”, issued by the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. It clearly stated what the United States must do and why in the exploration of space. In his announcement in January, President Bush stated: “…the fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.”

The Commission stated it succinctly: “The Commission finds that the long-term, ambitious space agenda advanced by the President for robotic and human exploration will significantly help the United States protect its technological leadership, economic vitality, and security.”

It should be noted that neither the president nor the commission stated the exploration of space was the goal. Exploration is merely the means to an end. The vision is really all about what it would do for the United States as a country and its people. The capability to explore space, and specifically the human exploration of space, places demands on the nation that results in a higher quality of life on earth and bolsters national prestige around the world worthy of the moniker superpower. The loss of the space shuttle Columbia resulted in a necessary re-examination of why Americans were in space, because those reasons seem to have been forgotten. The reasons were and remain both tangible and intangible, and the benefits need to be cited if Americans are to wholeheartedly back the new vision of exploration.

Of pride and power

John M. Logsdon is known to many in the space community for his involvement in helping to form space policy and writing of the history of space exploration since the 1960s. He is director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. In the winter 2003 quarterly journal published by the Institute, Logsdon’s article “A Sustainable Rationale for Human Spaceflight”, stated the rationale for Apollo was also be used to justify the efforts that followed.

Neither the president nor the commission stated the exploration of space was the goal. Exploration is merely the means to an end. The vision is really all about what it would do for the United States as a country and its people.

Speaking of the 1964 book Pride and Power by political scientist Vernon Van Dyke, Logsdon describes pride and power “…as the primary rationales for the major commitment of national resources made in the early years of the U.S. space program. His [Van Dyke’s] analysis can be applied not only to Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon, but also to the two major policy decisions that have shaped the U.S. civilian space program since. Like the Apollo initiative, the 1972 decision to develop the space shuttle and the 1984 decision to build a space station were influenced more by considerations of national power and national pride than they were by other motivations.”

In his article, Logsdon also cites some startling facts about the policy debates during and post-Apollo. In the summer of 1971, staffers in the Office of Management and Budget were actually pushing for cancellation of Apollo 16 and 17, and NASA’s proposed reusable launch vehicle, the space shuttle, drew collective yawns at OMB. Casper Weinberger was deputy director of the OMB at the time. He argued that canceling the last two Apollo flights and refusing to fund the shuttle was tantamount to admitting “that our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward… and voluntarily starting to give up our superpower status…” Weinberger carried the day, and President Nixon agreed. Apollo 16 and 17 were saved, and the shuttle got the green light. The same rationale was used during discussions in the Reagan Administration on the space station. Today, however, it is not about pride and power only, but about America’s strength technologically and economically.

Don’t look now, but…

In the collective soul-searching following the Columbia disaster, there were calls from various circles to retire the aging shuttle fleet, effectively ending America’s human spaceflight program. Until the shuttle could once again resume flight, the U.S. would have to rely solely on Russia to get crewmembers and supplies up to the international space station. There was also a new fly in the ointment. China launched its first astronaut in mid-October 2003. Logsdon lamented, “It is indeed unthinkable that the United States would abandon human spaceflight, just as China, its putative 21st-century contender for global influence, begins its own program.”

As the Chinese coffers fill, the Beijing government will continue to pour money into its military and certainly its manned space launch capability.

Make no mistake: China is committed to becoming the economic superpower of the world in this century. Their civilization is thousands of years old and the communist leadership of China sees the cards shifting in their favor as they look long-term. During the first week in July, CNN reported the bulk of European foreign investment has shifted from the United States to China. The number of American companies shutting down their factories and moving them to China increases every month, seduced by the lure of low-cost manufacturing.

The July issue of Wired reported China’s chief economic indicators all point up, and some look positively exponential. China is the top exporter of telecommunications equipment, reporting over $36 billion in 2002, with the U.S. in second place at $21.6 billion. The number of Chinese engineering graduates exceeded a quarter of a million in 2002; among the top five countries that included China, the EU, Russia, Japan, and the United States, the U.S. was dead last at only 59,536 engineering graduates. China is also the top exporter of electronics with more than $9 billion; again the U.S. is last here at just over $2.5 billion. Interestingly, Ireland is the top exporter of computers at roughly $5 billion with China close behind, but the U.S. is last here also at only about $2.4 billion. The economic rise of the dragon has more to do weakening America as a manufacturing base than its does in threatening the U.S. in space, but as the Chinese coffers fill, the Beijing government will continue to pour money into its military and certainly its manned space launch capability.

To Mars, Saturn and beyond

One month ago the Cassini probe passed through the rings of Saturn after a seven-year voyage to the planet. By all accounts, Cassini is working flawlessly, sending back images and data that one has come to expect from the brilliant minds at JPL, which also produced the Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. These are heady days for JPL and its director Dr. Charles Elachi. These missions and their hardware actually reflect, in microcosm, what the Commission report would like to see achieved on a much larger national scale. Aviation Week & Space Technology senior editor Craig Covault interviewed Dr. Elachi for the June 21 issue to discuss JPL’s role in the new space exploration initiative. He noted specifically the importance of the many companies that support JPL as contributing to its success.

“For the rovers,” Dr. Elachi said, “slightly more than half the money was spent in industry. So when we do things in-house, more than 50% of the funds are distributed throughout industry—but over a larger number of small companies. I think that is healthy. And we really need to have a broad engagement for startups, mid-size and large companies.”

The success the Mars and Saturn missions has heightened enthusiasm and support for space exploration and bolsters support for the new space exploration initiative. NASA has recorded over 11 billion hits to its Martian rover websites. “The message to the aerospace industry and policy makers,” Dr. Elachi stated, “is that the public is excited about space exploration and sees it as a positive and uplifting thing to inspire the next generation.”

As expected, the budgetary battles have already ensued over the new vision of space exploration. This has always been the case. In fiscal terms, the number of near-death experiences in America’s space program stretch back decades. The future will be no different. However, this present moment is critical to this country’s standing in the world and its ability to compete, to lead, and to remain a superpower.