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Griffin
NASA administrator Mike Griffin argues that human space exploration is essential to demonstrating US leadership and supporting national security. (credit: J. Foust)

Soft power and soft logic

At last, it seems, we have the ultimate reason NASA needs to return to the Moon: to seize the ultimate high ground.

“China also wants to go to the moon, and they want the moon to become a military base in space,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) last week in a meeting with a group of business leaders from northern Alabama visiting Washington, according to the Huntsville Times. “We’ve got to get back to the moon first and be able to stay there. The nation’s investment in space should be one of our top national security priorities.”

The Moon as a military base? It sounds like something from the early days of the Space Age, when military leaders and pundits suggested that the Moon could be used as a military base of some kind, perhaps as a location where missiles could be launched towards Earth—nevermind that it would take three days for those missiles to arrive (see “Heinlein’s ghost (part 1)”, The Space Review, April 9, 2007). Unfortunately, Senator Mikulski doesn’t explain what the Chinese will do with their lunar military base: perhaps guard supplies of helium-3 for reactors that don’t yet exist?

While the idea of a Chinese military base on the Moon may sound preposterous, it’s hardly the first time that NASA’s supporters in Congress have used China’s ambitions in space—real or perceived—as an argument for continuing or increasing support for NASA in general, and human spaceflight in particular. Such comments also fit into a larger theme that has emerged in recent months, one endorsed by NASA administrator Mike Griffin himself: that the US must continue human spaceflight simply because that is what great nations do, with the corollary that if the US abandoned human spaceflight it would no longer be a great nation.

A theme that has emerged in recent months is that the US must continue human spaceflight simply because that is what great nations do, with the corollary that if the US abandoned human spaceflight it would no longer be a great nation.

That approach is something of a departure from late last year, when NASA rolled out its plans for establishing a permanent base on the Moon by the early 2020s (see “Moonbase why”, The Space Review, December 11, 2006). The space agency went to great lengths to explain why a lunar base was worthwhile, from science and exploration to settlement and commerce: enough rationales, it seemed, to appeal to almost anyone. Yet the public response, as gauged in particular by reaction in the press, was lackluster at best. None of the reasons put forward by NASA seemed particularly compelling, particularly when weighed against the cost of establishing and maintaining such a facility.

Early this year, Griffin started to take a different approach in public. Speaking in Houston in January to accept the Quasar Award from them Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, Griffin described explanations like science and commerce as “acceptable reasons”. Separate from acceptable reasons, he argued, were “real reasons”, which are “intuitive and compelling to all of us, but they’re not immediately logical.” Such “real reasons”, he said, include curiosity, competitiveness, and monument building. “It is my observation that when we do things for Real Reasons as opposed to Acceptable Reasons, we produce our highest achievements,” Griffin said. “The people who do things for Real Reasons, and who know it, are also the ones who are the most successful by the standards embodied in Acceptable Reasons.”

If the explanations put forward in December were “acceptable reasons”, in Griffin’s parlance, then what would the real reasons be? A curiosity about what the Moon is like, perhaps, and what it might teach us about the Earth and the rest of the solar system. A monument to our technological capabilities (Griffin states in his speech that “the products of our space program are today’s cathedrals”). And the value of the United States being the first to take such a bold step, as Griffin explains:

Let’s think for a moment about national security. What is the value to the United States of being involved in enterprises which lift up human hearts everywhere when we do them? What is the value to the United States of being engaged in such projects, doing the kinds of things that other people want to do with us, as partners? What is the value to the United States of being a leader in such efforts, in projects in which every nation capable of doing so wants to take part? I would submit that the highest possible form of national security, well above having better guns and bombs than everyone else, well above being so strong that no one wants to fight with us, is the security which comes from being a nation which does the kinds of things that make others want to work with us to do them. What security could we ever ask that would be better than that, and what give[s] more of it to us than the space program?
Few would argue about the commercial or military importance of space. However, these are applications that are outside of civil space programs, and applications that, to date, do not require human spaceflight capabilities.

Griffin is describing above a concept known as “soft power”, a term coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard Unversity’s Kennedy School of Government. “Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals,” Nye explained in an op-ed four years ago. “It differs from hard power, the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will.”

Griffin continued this line of thought in a speech earlier this month at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Calling human spaceflight “a strategic capability for a nation” akin to sea power a century ago, he discussed the geopolitical importance of space in general:

Those who think strategically about geopolitical issues measure a nation’s influence on world affairs through four fundamental metrics: economic influence such as the size of a nation’s economy and the pattern of its trade relations; military influence such as the ability to deploy army, navy, air and space forces around the world; political influence through diplomacy between countries or in coalitions of nations; and cultural influence with regard to how a country projects its values through various arts, media, and language. While some of these influences are easier to measure than others, I think we can see from this discussion that what we do in space contributes to all four of these measures of our nation’s influence. What the United States chooses to do in space matters.

Few would argue about the commercial or military importance of space: that has been clearly demonstrated by the impact space-based applications have on the economy and the various critical services space-based assets provide to military forces around the world. However, these are applications that are outside of civil space programs, and applications that, to date, do not require human spaceflight capabilities. (At some point, of course, the realm of commercial space will expand to include the presence of humans in orbit and beyond for tourism or other applications, but even then its economic impact will be dwarfed for even longer by more mundane but lucrative businesses, like direct-to-home television.) So where do NASA and human spaceflight fit in?

Griffin, in his comments, seems to position human spaceflight as an instrument of soft power: a way of demonstrating US leadership not just in space, but on Earth as well. In his Colorado speech, he warns of a “dark cloud” in the form of doubts by some young people about whether the US ever sent humans to the Moon in the first place, some 35+ years ago. “This dark cloud calls into question our nation’s willingness, maybe even our ability, to dare great things,” he said. “It raises disturbing questions: Are America’s best days behind us? Will our future be dimmer than our past?”

But just how strategic is human spaceflight today? It was without question over four decades ago, when the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a superpower struggle, and the Space Race was a means for both countries to demonstrate their technological—and, hence, ideological—superiority to the world. It’s less clear, however, just how strategic human spaceflight is to the US today, given that the geopolitical landscape is very different than what it was a half-century ago. Yes, China has developed an indigenous human spaceflight capability, and India is showing a growing interest in developing its own, but that doesn’t mean that human spaceflight remains a proxy for technological leadership: after all, Europe and Japan have emerged in the last half-century as two of the leading world powers, particularly from an economic and technological standpoint, yet neither has shown more than a halfhearted interest in developing their own human spaceflight capabilities.

In the early 21st century, the United States can exert soft power influence in science and technology areas beyond human spaceflight, and perhaps more effectively. One example is the growing global concern about climate change, for which the evidence mounts that human activity is either the primary cause or a critical exacerbating factor. Imagine if the US decided to take the leading role in combating climate change, through the development of alternative energy sources (particularly those that have the desirable side effect of reducing US reliance on energy imported from unstable regions of the globe) and other mitigating technologies. How much soft power would the US accrue, particularly in counterpoint to China, whose economic expansion has been powered primarily by coal and oil? And, of course, space technologies—although not necessarily human spaceflight—would have a role to play here as well.

Griffin worries about a future where the US—or, at least, NASA—abandons human spaceflight, to the great loss of the country, as he described in his January speech in Houston:

I’ve reached the point where I am completely convinced that if NASA were to disappear tomorrow, if the American space program were to disappear tomorrow, if we never put up another Hubble, never put another human being in space, people would be profoundly distraught. Americans would feel less than themselves. They would feel that our best days are behind us. They would feel that we have lost something, something that matters. And yet they would not know why.
In the early 21st century, the United States can exert soft power influence in science and technology areas beyond human spaceflight, and perhaps more effectively.

Yet Americans, it seems, would be perfectly willing to abandon spaceflight. In a poll performed last month by Harris Interactive, Americans were asked to name up to two federal programs they believed should be cut if federal spending overall had to be cut. A whopping 51 percent named the “space program”, far ahead of welfare, defense, and farm subsidies. (Education and entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare, finished at the bottom of the list.) Space finished ahead of defense among Democrats, and far ahead of defense and welfare among independents; space was in a statistical dead heat with welfare among Republicans, which is not terribly encouraging given the low opinion of welfare among many conservatives. These figures may be a result of misperceptions among the general public about how much of the federal budget is spent on NASA, as past polls have found, but they do indicate that many Americans see spaceflight as a luxury, not a necessity.

Griffin’s discussion of “real reasons” versus “acceptable reasons” likely resonates with many in the space community, who have been drawn to work in the field for reasons less tangible than science or economics. Griffin, in January, noted Sir George Mallory’s famous reason for climbing Mount Everest: “Because it is there.” However, in an era when the geopolitical landscape is vastly different than what it was at the beginning of the Space Age 50 years ago, and in a world where there are other, potentially more fruitful opportunities for the United States to exercise “soft power” for the benefit of both itself and the world, “because it is there” many not be reason enough for NASA to send humans back to the Moon.


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