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Staying in Space By: Matt Gurney
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, September 03, 2009

Forty years after two Americans became the first human beings to set foot on the surface of the moon, NASA faces an existential crisis. Trapped by budgetary pressures, it faces the bleak reality that its budget is not large enough to meet its goals, and given the mounting federal deficit and current global economic hardship, any additional funding is far from certain. Once one of the crown jewels of American prestige, the NASA of today has dreams, to be sure, but few realistic hopes. And yet, in many ways, a vigorous NASA is more important today than ever.


When the space race first began in the late fifties, it was purely a superpower affair. Despite an early lead and many public triumphs, including the first satellite and first man in space, the Soviet Union was ultimately unable to keep up with the power of American industry and technological know-how. After the collapse of the USSR, it withered away to practically nothing. Today, Russia’s space program lags far behind, but still plays an important role in supplying the International Space Station and ferrying station crew to orbit and back, as well as lofting the occasional wealthy tourist into the heavens.


This should have left America dominant in space, and for a time, it did. But the era of unquestioned US control of space is drawing to a close. While NASA remains at the forefront of manned spaceflight, it is facing increasing competition from China, Japan, and India. China orbited its first taikonauts in 2003 and has since mused publicly about a space station and lunar and Mars missions. Japan wishes to create a manned lunar base for scientific research by 2030. Other countries are pushing ahead with missions, not just plans. On August 30th of this year, India declared that its first mission to the moon had ended, forced to an early conclusion by technical failures, but still a huge accomplishment. America’s head start, once certain, could be erased in a few short years.


NASA finds itself in a quandary. The shuttle is due for replacement; designed to carry both cargo and people, it excels at neither. Its reusable nature has created serious safety issues. NASA had hoped to replace the costly shuttle with a new generation of rockets and capsules, but cannot complete the program before the 2010 retirement date for the shuttle. This would leave NASA without the ability to put astronauts into space, but if the shuttle is kept in service longer, the expense of maintaining the fleet will slow NASA’s efforts to replace the shuttle. It’s a classic Catch-22. NASA cannot afford to continue to operate the space shuttle, or to replace it.


This is intolerable. The American people have become so accustomed to the routine of space shuttle flights that they have come to taken America’s leadership in space for granted, but this must change. While debates over Iraq and healthcare might prove more engaging in the short term, a public debate must be held to determine America’s commitment to space. NASA has a role to play in reigniting the public’s imagination. Repeated shuttle flights into Earth orbit to conduct varied scientific experiments serve an important function for mankind, certainly, but are hardly the stuff to fire up the nation’s imagination.


A mission to Mars, or a permanent outpost on the moon, is what NASA should focus on. It will spur innovation, technological development, our knowledge of the universe, and will, simply put, return American to the forefront of mankind’s greatest adventure – the selfless exploration of the unknown. There would be military and economic benefits: America’s domination of air and space is what has let it become the military juggernaut it is, and satellite-reliant weapon and navigation systems will only become more important in the decades ahead. Telecommunications, the foundation of our entire knowledge-based economy, also depend on the constellation of relay satellites above us.


A committee on the future of NASA will soon present a report to the Obama Administration. It might advocate some unorthodox solutions; one possibility is that it will urge NASA to delegate the ferrying of supplies and personnel into orbit to private companies, allowing it to focus on the exploration of deep space. Such a step, wedding the power of the American free market with the goal of state-sponsored cosmic exploration, is an idea worth considering, and would provide a boon to the American aerospace sector. Cooperation with traditional allies and space partners such as the Europeans, Canadians, and Japanese would also be an option. Last but not least, Obama could also raise NASA’s budget and maintain it for the length of his presidency, but given the current economic reality, this outcome seems the least likely.


Whatever the Augustine Committee recommends, it is imperative that the Obama Administration energetically pursue a robust and ambitious space program. America’s future military and economic wellbeing, not to mention its international prestige and position of global leadership, require it. The patriotic American people, never content to be second best in anything, will demand it. And it should be done simply because it is unnatural for humanity to cease exploring. Mars and the more distant planets are out there; a human being will set foot on them eventually.


If President Obama can overcome the temptation to fritter away America’s existing lead in spaceflight pursuing costly social engineering projects, there is no reason that those first steps should not be taken by an American. 

Matt Gurney is an assistant editor for comment at Canada’s National Post, and writes and speaks on issues of military and geopolitical concern. He can be reached at mgurney.responses@gmail.com

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