Space is bigger than NASA

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Space exploration, from the iconic Apollo lunar missions and robotic explorations of Mars to the discovery of distant Earth-like planets, has long been a symbol of American leadership and prestige.

Today, the United States leads the world in entrepreneurial space ventures, ranging from new satellite services to space tourism. In his inaugural address, President Trump referred to this unifying power of space challenges when he said, “We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow. A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions.”

But dark clouds threaten this optimistic view, in the form of actions by nations that could extend conflict from the Earth into space. Russia and China have tested anti-satellite weapons that could create space debris lasting thousands of years. At the same time, our security and the global economy are more reliant than ever on space-based information services, like the Global Positioning System.

Space is no longer a sanctuary, if it ever was, and potential adversaries look to space as a key U.S. vulnerability.

{mosads}Over the past decade, space policy decision-making has been fragmented and left to lower-level staff rather than accountable leadership. This has resulted in declining budgets and slower innovation. NASA’s $19.3 billion budget in 2016 was 0.5 percent of federal government spending. If NASA had the same spending power as in 1992, around the end of the Cold War, its budget would be over $24 billion today.


We spend 20 percent less on NASA than we did 25 years ago, while the importance of space is greater than ever.

We are lagging behind China in cutting-edge hypersonic research while innovative U.S. commercial remote-sensing companies are tangled in regulatory limbo. U.S. economic and security interests are in peril unless there is a new burst of innovation and regulatory relief in our aerospace industries.

When speaking about civil space programs, Trump said, “A cornerstone of my policy is we will substantially expand public private partnerships to maximize the amount of investment and funding that is available for space exploration and development.”

Exactly the same logic applies to meeting national security space needs.

Leadership in space today is far different than during the Cold War. Today, with many more countries in space, leadership is less about what we can do alone — perhaps better than anyone else — and more about what we can get others to join with us in doing.

The Trump administration’s national security team will find that space-related issues permeate a wide range of national interests, affecting relations with every major power with space capabilities, as well as developing countries that depend on space services for commerce, security and safety.

If we want greater depth and resilience for national security space systems, then we must organize, train and equip our armed forces to operate under realistic combat conditions.

If we want to enhance stability by broadening international support for productive and stable norms of behavior in space, then we need to establish and lead space initiatives in which other nations can participate.

If we want to shape the values and norms of the new frontier, then we must ourselves be on that frontier. New societies are shaped by those who are there, not by those who stay home.

If we value the peaceful exploration and development of space, we must make it so.

And above all else, we must recognize with deeds beyond words that these are not separate ideas to be parceled out to separate agencies, but complementary aspects of U.S. national power in the world as it is today, where primacy in space is inseparable from primacy in the world.

During the presidential campaign, Vice President Mike Pence promised to “relaunch the national space policy council headed by the vice president.” The White House does not, and has never needed, a space council to supervise NASA, but it does need a way to combine the separate strands of national security space programs, diplomatic engagement, commercial competition and civil space cooperation with a unity of national purpose and effort.

Leadership in space is vital to protecting our own interests and creating a more stable international order in which the United States continues to be the indispensable nation. The Trump administration has the opportunity to “Make America Great Again” in space, not by repeating the past or relying on others to lead, but by working across traditionally separate departments and agencies and creating new partnerships for commerce, security and exploration.

A national space council, led by Vice President Pence, can make this a reality.

Scott Pace is the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington. He was previously the NASA associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation, and the assistant director for space and aeronautics in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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