Space race — America orbits around its troubles

Things look pretty messy on Earth — both from the ground and from space. There are bullets flying and bombs falling. Imagine the images from way above the planet: Refugees streaming out of countries and into camps. You can see land grabs on Earth. Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking parts of Ukraine. The territories of Iraq and Syria look like jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces. In Africa, you see people dying from an ungodly disease called Ebola.

No wonder NASA is looking up. It just awarded contracts, worth up to $6.8 billion, to Boeing and SpaceX to carry astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station, ending our reliance on the Russians for travel services in space. The deal sets the scene for a new and exciting chapter in American space travel at a time when Americans need a “boost.”

{mosads}It is worth recalling the public diplomacy value of the U.S. space program. Back in 1961, America had some of its finest moments above Earth. The U.S. space program went into full throttle when President Kennedy challenged us to land a man (or woman) on the moon. The Soviet Union had leapt in front of us with advanced space technology and its progress threatened our geopolitical superiority. With JFK’s encouragement, we mobilized resources. On July 20, 1969, two American astronauts walked on the moon’s surface in a move that boosted U.S. prestige and confidence.

This new step — using SpaceX and Boeing — will test American will and knowledge, again. We have accepted another spacecraft assignment — this time to deliver humans to the International Space Station or any other point within low-Earth orbit. Such a trip would be as important, if not more, than the launch of the space shuttle in 1977.

Giving up our reliance on Russian Soyuz capsules relieves us of another burden with Moscow. There have been two Russian launches of American astronauts since the Ukraine crisis blew up in February of this year. Over the past three years, the Russians have made a bundle of money on their special transit system — charging over $70 million for a seat on their capsules. If the new Boeing and SpaceX vehicles succeed, manned U.S. flights could resume by 2017. At a time of tensions with Russia, we could run our own space travel.

Space is still a race and a place where nations can show off. Prestige is power. Every country wants to feel good about its spirit of innovation and its technological prowess. Events on Earth continue to grow complex and we feel a bit “down.” So let’s look up and imagine the possibilities. Maybe Mars will be a peaceful planet.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. She teaches at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

Tags Boeing International Space Station NASA Russia Spaceflight SpaceX Vladimir Putin

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