America is no longer a space-faring nation. The Obama Administration's recent budget kills the successfully-tested Ares rocket, meant to replace the Space Shuttle as a workhorse for future manned missions. Billions of dollars will be spent to pay off private companies, whose contracts must be broken as a result of this decision. Starting in 2011, when the last Space Shuttle is retired, NASA, which over 40 years ago sent men to the Moon, will be unable to launch any astronauts into space. Overall, the Administration redirects NASA from goal-oriented human spaceflight and exploration to scientific experiments and equipment-testing, relegating our astronauts to commercial space flights – without explaining why, how, or when Americans will be back in space. Goal? Unknown. Damage to American leadership, both in space and on earth? Profound.
To paraphrase a line from the movie, “The Right Stuff,” about the Mercury astronauts, "No Buck Rogers - No Bucks." People don't get excited about a program that sends robots and petrie dishes, rather than John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, into space. The conspicuous absence of a target for manned U.S. space missions raises a serious question whether the we will ever again send Americans to the moon and beyond. President Obama’s insistence that any future manned deep space missions be international, rather than American, ventures further imperils the program.
Some space enthusiasts see a silver lining in Obama’s plan to pay private commercial space companies to ferry U.S. astronauts to the low orbit-based International Space Station. However, because the plan does not include the capability to send Americans into deep space for the foreseeable future, exclusive reliance on yet-to-be launched, yet-to-be NASA-approved for manned spaceflight rockets does not a vibrant space program make.
While the Administration’s approach effectively destroys our space program, problems have been mounting for a long time. China, India, and Japan, who 40 years ago could only peer over NASA’s shoulder, now look up with excitement at their spaceships hurtling away from the Earth. Indians plan to be on the moon by 2016, and China has begun to plan moon missions. Russia announced it will land on Mars before 2020.
How did we get to this sorry state? The short answer is not that we tried mightily and failed because of technological problems. The lack of money devoted to space-related activities is certainly a major reason. The funding shortfall, however, is not as bad as the vision shortfall. Neither NASA nor the leadership of either political party has proffered a convincing explanation to the American people why manned space flight and planetary colonization should be a national priority.
A shift in space-related cultural mores and popular imagination has also played a negative role. The early American space program flourished in an environment where we viewed ourselves as the good space-faring guys (and women), an attitude symbolized by the tremendously popular Star Trek series. It is not surprising that, about the same time the Administration announced, in effect, an end to a NASA-sponsored manned space flights, this year’s sci-fi blockbuster movie, Avatar, features a contingent of American Marines who commit atrocities against peaceful aliens on a distant planet, all in order to bolster the profits of a sinister corporation.
The way forward is to anchor manned space flight into a broader goal of space exploration and colonization, a vision firmly rooted in the unique American character and history. As American historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, presciently pointed out in 1893, the frontier has been the driving force in American history. The frontier has helped America grow. It has served as a unique social and political role, functioning as a magnet for individuals who wanted to control their own destinies.
Within this distinctive American context, space should be treated as the new frontier, to be explored and colonized in a targeted fashion. Just-discovered methane concentrations in the Martian atmosphere furnish evidence of life there and bolster the case for a mission to the Red Planet by 2020. This goal to land an American on Mars can be met with existing technology, provided we proceed with the same boldness and determination that led to America to land the first man on the Moon.
We should also revisit the Outer Space Treaty, which declares the moon and terrestrial bodies to be a “common heritage of mankind” and bars any nation from asserting sovereignty over them. If such a dysfunctional legal regime existed in the 1500s, the New World would have never been settled.
A uniquely American vision of a bold space program can be supported by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. It would inspire the public and provide numerous technological and engineering spin-offs, while demonstrating to the world that the U.S. remains an optimistic and courageous leader. Congress should firmly reject President Obama’s belly-gazing approach to the future and the next frontier by reaffirming the U.S. commitment to manned spaceflight and colonization, set dates for a manned mission to Mars, and boost NASA’s budget with these goals in mind.
Rivkin is a Washington D.C. lawyer who advised on space policy and served in several Republican Administrations. McCaffrey is a Washington-based writer and analyst.