A moonshot to inspire: Building back better in space
Recent Democratic presidents have supported and initiated important, bold and sustainable robotic and commercial space efforts. But no Democrat since John F. Kennedy has set this nation onto a course that resulted in humans exploring new worlds.
Kennedy famously charged the country to put humans on the Moon during the 1960s and he made it a prominent part of the messaging of his “New Frontiers” administration. As Ingrid Ockert recently wrote in a book review about Apollo, Kennedy used space for “defining his administration in contrast to the perceived failures of (his predecessor)…believing that success in space would position Democrats as the party of vision and imagination.” And it worked.
Kennedy did not live to see his moonshot realized but it enthralled the world. It also accomplished a masterful feat of soft power projection and it inspired a generation at home to embark in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that fueled the PC and internet revolutions of the 1980s and 1990s. This, in turn, launched much of our modern economy.
I am a scientist whose career has been organized around and benefited tremendously from robotic space exploration. Yet I can say with authority that no robotic space exploration mission has ever had such a powerful and pervasive impact as Kennedy sending Americans to explore another world.
Kennedy’s bold vision propelled science forward greatly. It determined how and when the Earth-Moon system was formed. Of even greater impact, it produced the first pictures of our fragile, blue marble Earth hanging in the deep blackness of space, launching an ecological awareness of our planet that still powerfully speaks to us six decades later.
President Biden was first elected to the Senate during Apollo. To his credit, the president has already affirmed that his administration will continue NASA’s Artemis program to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon. Moreover, Biden has signaled his innate grasp of what Kennedy’s Apollo accomplished and how space exploration can inspire on a larger scale by exhibiting a Moon rock in the Oval Office and by very publicly celebrating the recent accomplishment of NASA’s Perseverance rover’s landing on Mars.
But where will Biden take this nation in human space exploration? How can he brand his administration to be both as bold and effective in space as Kennedy’s administration was?
As with other Biden initiatives, like his Cancer Moonshot and green energy future, he can use space to inspire. In this daunting, pessimistic and divided time we may actually need space initiatives more today than even in the darkest days of the Cold War.
Biden should craft our human space exploration to project bold U.S. global leadership by sending men and women to do more than just visit, but to establish bases on these new frontiers. In doing so, he would no doubt launch a powerful new wave of science and engineering careers to fuel the nation’s tech economy for decades to come.
In this time when science and the scientific method is often under public attack, Biden can build space exploration back better, infusing this nation’s sense of its 21st century self and its progress to a brighter future that is both science-based and larger than life. He can show the world an America leading a historic pathway to the planets and even to the stars with a revitalized NASA and a whole of government approach that leverages what human space exploration and the scientific method can tangibly deliver and how they can intangibly inspire.
Such an approach would dovetail well with other administration goals, showcasing the diverse workforce creating our future in space and leveraging the innovation of the private sector in partnership with the government to send humans to far away worlds in ways that no other nation can.
In this time of pandemic despair, Biden has a historic opportunity to light a candle of hope for a brighter future both in space and here on Earth. Kennedy saw that connection between people here on Earth and people exploring space and he was right. That brighter future for human space exploration that Biden can launch could hold even greater economic, scientific, global domestic leadership and inspirational benefits than Apollo did, and for all humankind.
Dr. Alan Stern is a former NASA head of science, a former board chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and a member of the National Science Board. His opinions here are his own.