Years from now when the history of 2016 is written, it will be a bizarre and fascinating read. The long-held rules of political physics are being upended, with boiling angst and frustration from every political aisle bubbling over the American pot. One thing is abundantly clear—people want actionable and demonstrable leadership.
That is the same refrain in “Ensuring US Leadership in Space,” the recently released report by some of America’s leading space industry and advocacy organizations. America needs to lead in space again.
Trying to get a group of well-established organizations (in any field) to mutually agree on the color of the sky is a feat worthy of Hercules. But the Space Foundation, AIAA, Commercial Spaceflight Federation, AIA, and others have done it in a report that speaks plainly about the challenges, opportunities and benefits that come with being a true spacefaring nation.
It requires stable investments from both the public and private sectors; partnerships between civil, commercial, military and international groups; policies that enhance and not micromanage exploration, technology development as well as market expansion; and real connectivity in education to have the workforce to make it all possible.
While exploring the universe is breathtaking in its imagery, experiences and knowledge, space should also be viewed as an infrastructure. Every facet of our lives depends on it. From military and intelligence needs, to civilian and commercial services, to technology creation and economic development, space has a role in it. Occupying the high ground is the most important security position any force or nation can hold, and if we do not seize it while we can, others will and that does not bode well for our national or economic security.
China, Russia, India, Iran and even North Korea are pushing forward new investments in engines, heavy-lift/ballistic missile capacities, and imagery/intelligence collection while demonstrating newfound capacities to knock out satellites, communications networks and other infrastructures that are space-linked and dependent. The era of the Cold War Space Race is long over. Yet, in the decades since the end of the U.S. vs. Soviet space environment, other nations have entered the space access playing field.
While it’s great to have friends like the Europeans, Israelis, Japanese and others join us in orbit with their own space capacities, it’s another thing to have the Iranians, North Koreans and even the Chinese there too. Those nations want the same high ground we occupy, and if we don’t secure it for ourselves, do you really think others are going to look out for our interests?
Whether it be the battlefield or the marketplace, the only nation that has our interests at heart is our own, and that is why renewed American leadership is so critical.
Today, space is a critical infrastructure that is intimately linked, like a row of dominoes connecting our everyday security, commerce and way of life. If we ignore it, don’t take our role in it seriously, or just get plain lazy, we will be overtaken by competition that is both friendly to American interests as well as hostile to it. And when those dominoes teeter or fall, it puts our national and economic security in grave risk.
To be sure, America has a lot to celebrate about its recent efforts in space. We finally got our shot of Pluto; we know more Mars secrets; Scott Kelly’s one-year adventure in space is yielding incredible science; companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are rewriting the engineering and space access textbook; and more than 18,000 people applied to be new NASA astronauts. These are building blocks to greater American opportunity, but as the report authors note, these successes matter little if we, as a nation, don’t take a more aggressive leadership role in pioneering and developing space infrastructure.
Despite these successes, the argument can be made that America is in the “Flint, Michigan years” of space access, as we are dependent on Russian rocket launches to access the Space Station (that U.S. taxpayers funded). We allowed our space access infrastructure to atrophy, decay, become museum pieces and become so nonexistent that we need someone to truck the water to us so we could safely survive.
Lack of stable budgets, poor stewardship by the Congress and Administrations of both parties, poor investments in next-generation systems to continue safe, reliable, and cost effective access— and more can all be blamed for our “Flint years.” We can argue over the forensics of these faults, but the truth is moving forward is far more important than looking behind. We need to take the lessons good and bad from our past and apply them in American vision, initiative and leadership.
More than a dozen of this nation’s most distinguished and differing space voices have given us a great map to plot the course forward. It is an “E Pluribus Unum” moment for the space community – out of many, one. That motto has had a nice ring to it on this planet for some time. Imagine what could happen if we apply it to our efforts above and beyond it. The view is always better from higher and secure ground.