America Must Retake Lead in Space Exploration

It's time for the United States to take back the captain's seat in space exploration.

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Billows of smoke and steam rise above Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida alongside space shuttle Discovery as it races toward space on the STS-128 mission.
Billows of smoke and steam rise above Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida alongside space shuttle Discovery as it races toward space on the STS-128 mission.

Dr. Lamont Colucci is an Associate Professor of Politics at Ripon College, recent Fulbright Scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books. You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.

Space... the final frontier. These are the voyages of the American people. Its permanent mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no American has gone before.

The above homage to the opening lines of the real Star Trek, the one where an American from Iowa was the captain, may seem odd at a time when the majority of the country is concerned about gas prices and mortgages, and those that are paying attention to events outside their hometown are focused on Afghanistan and the Iranian nuclear program. However, it is precisely at this time that a call for American primacy in space must be made.

Last Friday, December 7, marked two anniversaries that are locked together by fate and destiny. It was the 40th anniversary of the last manned mission to the Moon and the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Should we neglect the space race, the threat of another such attack looms large. Much was made in 2009 when America went back into space with the Ares I-X rocket. However, unless the United States is serious about being a space-faring people, this will be a mere sideshow experiment.

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In January of 2004, President Bush called for a "renewed spirit of discovery" where America would again take the lead as the primary space-faring people. "We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own." This sentence hearkened back to the 1962 when Americans were challenged by President Kennedy to take their civilization and values to the stars. The fundamental piece of President Bush's speech was the American commitment to manned space exploration, with a near term goal of a manned mission to Mars. This may have been missed by the media or popular culture, but it is the salient point. America needs not only to lead technologically; it needs to lead by example through a robust space exploration program with astronauts.

The 10 member Augustine Commission reported in 2009 a pessimistic scenario of the space program, being limited to near earth asteroid exploration and to "gravitationally significant" points in space, known as Lagrange points. This will do nothing to inspire the generations of Americans alive now and in the future.

It is time for President Obama to call for Americans to rise up to the challenge posed by President Kennedy. This cannot be done on the budget of $18.7 billion dollars, equating to a paltry .48 percent of the federal budget. We are spending less on the most essential aspect of America's future than we did on the automobile industry bailout. This fiscal absurdity occurs while we are forced to hitchhike into space on Russian rockets. The spending on the space program will determine whether or not America will lead in space, create the next advances in medicine, receive the benefits from space technology and be able to dominate the next battlefield. Whether we like it or not, the militarization of space is inevitable. The question is not if, but when. The civilization that is first past the post here will be first past the post permanently. There is nothing short of American superpower status at stake. The country that dominates space and space exploration will also have the most vibrant and dynamic economy, the most advanced, high-paying jobs, and a technological edge that is second to none. It is a national security and economic imperative, where anything else palls in comparison. It is up to the president to explain to the American people how the need is more than ever, not less. It is up to the president to place it squarely and fully in the context of the economic crisis, not shy from it.

[See Photos: Spectacular Snapshots of Space.]

The president should make both an ideological and practical case for the space program. On the ideological side he needs to hearken back to President Kennedy demanding that America and Americans must lead this human endeavor, that the banner of freedom and democracy must be at the forefront, and that it is not only our challenge, but our duty and responsibility. If not us, who? If not now, when? On the practical side he needs to make the national security and economic case in stark and clear terms. The cost of both, for another power to supersede us, would be catastrophic at every level. The one presidential candidate who understood this concept, Newt Gingrich, and was serious about space and its ultimate role in national security, technology, and economics, was unjustly mocked.

There are specifics that should be stressed. First, NASA must be given the flagship duty again. It must be NASA, not the private sector, as an arm of the American government, representing the American people, that explores the final frontier. NASA needs to have the resources, backing, and support of the White House. This needs to be public and overt. The first manned exploration beyond the Moon must be under a NASA aegis. Second, a firmer commitment to manned exploration must be made. The dalliance with probes and robotics is fine for the purpose to advance manned exploration, not the other way around. Third, there must be real commitment to build the space elevator, the result of which would be to reduce the cost of putting weight into space from $10,000 dollars per pound to $100.00. This could be operational within 15 years with a cost of $10 billion. It is the linchpin to future space exploration, a permanent lunar base of operations, future space mining concepts, and a fully comprehensive space based missile defense. Fourth, promote the development of a real starship (perhaps based on fusion technology) instead of single use rockets, or limited use shuttles. Although the technology is not there yet, the promotion of this in a "Kennedy-esque" manner might generate new ideas and concepts that could advance our understanding. Fifth, inspire the American people to promote the space program, the heroism of NASA, the necessity of space exploration, and tie our future to it.

[See Photos: NASA's Voyager Probes the Outer Reaches of the Solar System.]

The space program, and manned space exploration in specific, are the keys to America's future, not only as a global superpower, but as the leading economy. The two cannot be separated, and neither of them will have a future without America leading the way, now, not in some murky future. It is precisely because of the economic downturn, the threats posed by other great powers and rogue states, that this is the time for such a clarion call. This time needs to be capitalized on, to advance the real need for a renewed American commitment to space. The country that makes this commitment will be the country with a secure future.

We should all take the words of the last American on the moon, Eugene Cernan, to heart : "America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind."

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