American Leadership in Space -- Now or Never

Where is America’s space program going? After a bold promise of American leadership in space in 2010, as well as plans for a manned Mars mission by the mid-2030s, President Obama has dropped space like a lead balloon. With a new Congressional majority, intent on leadership and accountability, let’s get back to space, shall we?  Oh and by the way, it matters.   

Until recently, America’s space program was synonymous with leadership. Those days are now gone. China leaps ahead to the Moon and Mars, planning a manned mission to the former, robotic missions to the latter. Russia is on a beeline for Mars and its moons. Near earth orbit is becoming a parking lot, while space ambitions proliferate from the Middle East to India. So, let’s be frank:  gone are the glory days – unless we dig deep, decide to care, reform and up-fund NASA, make the necessary long-term commitments. And that is not an easy mandate, and it will take work.

In the Apollo and Shuttle eras, America was cooperative, but pushed international comers. We led. Our leadership was built on looking forward. We trusted ourselves, embraced risk, understood daring exploration, and saw the future as worth winning. We had an itch to learn, to be first -- in a word -- to lead.  In that process, high-technology jobs were unceasingly created in all 50 states, with spin-offs from microwaves to GPS, synthetic fabrics to iPhones, helping advance every sector of the U.S. economy. 

But space leadership was more than economic. It protected American national security. That last is consequential; it matters for reasons speakable and unspeakable.  American space dominance is central to stability on Earth. At present, we are flatfooted. Our space program is going nowhere fast. Promises made by this president with alacrity are broken with impunity. And memories of America’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo days, the glorious and spellbinding moonwalks are fading. All but one of the Mercury astronauts are deceased. Ten of the Apollo astronauts are gone. Four of the 12 who walked on the moon are gone, including the first among them, Neil Armstrong. 

Yet here we stand, watching dust blow over our prior leadership as if it mattered not at all. We revere NASA’s past more as a relic than step toward a brighter, more ambitious future. America’s boundless energy and ambition to explore space is reduced to that quaint, respectful admiration we accord Egypt’s pyramids, Greek statues and Roman ruins. In April 2010, President Obama promised American leadership in space, path-breaking missions to the Mars. The difference between his promise and that of former President John F. Kennedy, more than 50 years earlier, is stark. Americans walked on the moon when Kennedy sent us there. Obama has, so far, just added broken promises to the pile.

We are a long way from Mars. Since 2010, Obama has overseen the death of America’s Shuttle Program, cancelled America’s Constellation manned moon mission, cut America’s unmanned Mars probes (ending two flights for 2016 and 2018), slashed NASA’s planetary science missions, slapped NASA with a recent 20 percent cut in that area, failed to reorganize, make cohesive or align NASA behind a core set of big missions, and barely level-funded space. Only Congress has saved any semblance of American space leadership, and this now hangs by a thread. 

Today, ironically, we are dependent on Russia -- the nation we beat to the moon -- for getting American astronauts to the orbiting Space Station.  China brings moon samples back and plans exploratory missions, and we seem to watch helplessly. Despite proven advantage in heavy-lift rockets, we fiddle with experimental options that have repeat engine failures, blow up, and malfunction on launch. We talk a good game on promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs, but lag behind much of the world in sectors we decisively led.

It is time for hard truths. Risk comes with space exploration, but smart decision making, cohesive and mission-focused commitments minimize risk. We must press our advantages, not ignore them, from launch capacity and innovation to economic strength and raw daring. We must press them now into space -- back into space. That is the promise we got from our president four years ago -- still unfilled.

So, here is the solution. First, a top-to-bottom review of NASA missions -- all of them. Let us be tough on ourselves. Cut those programs, whimsies and subsidies driven by purely political or regional interest, that have no real bearing on national dominance in space. Kill any programs that cannot be effectively measured, aligned with the larger NASA mission of space exploration (manned and unmanned). Insist on cohesion, because there currently is none. Give budget control to the head of NASA, and insist on national results.  End state-by-state lunch-snacking on NASA’s money -- that is, yours and mine. Get NASA to serve the nation first. In short, restore that agency to coherence and greatness.

Once accountability is established, we can up-fund NASA by a marked number, maybe fifty percent. The key is to make America’s commitment to the nation’s future leadership in space real. This will allow credible advances in space-based science, from near earth to a permanence on Mars. Make this money work for every American, in a bona fides effort to explore, map, understand, and populate Mars. In the process, pioneer new rocket engine development and deployment, maximize heavy-lift superiority, and protect America’s national and economic interests. Make no mistake: China, Russia, India and others are already pressing the envelope. We owe it to ourselves to do the same.  

One plan, authored by close colleague and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, which is often proffered under the rubric Unified Space Vision, holds that America should cooperate (not compete) with others as they aim for the moon, while pressing a sequence of evolving American steps to pioneering and permanence on Mars. That plan has been 30 years in the making, and has growing appeal. But whatever course taken, the first step is the most important. Just as 45 years ago, taking the first step is pivotal. 

Finally, take stock of promises made. John F. Kennedy’s promise was not a one-off. It was multi-generational; it was to the future. So was President Reagan’s eloquent speech in the aftermath of the Challenger accident. So were speeches -- incremental all -- from both President Bushes and President Clinton. As we approach the 45th anniversary of all the Moon landings, it is time to keep faith. 

President Obama has a rare -- if fleeting -- opportunity. Beyond keeping his 2010 promises, he can be the president who stabilizes a wobbly NASA, realigns the agency with America’s highest hopes, and resolves to put Americans on Mars. That will take more than words. It will take a remake, rethink, restart and enlarged budget for NASA. President Obama now has a Congress more fully committed to keeping promises, protecting our national security, economic strength, legacy in space and mapping the future. He has a more thoughtful Congress than in many moons. Rather than stiff-arming them on this issue, the time is now to act. 

A thousand years from now, America and the world will remember the President and Congress -- is it this one? -- who set human kind on course for real space exploration, put eyes on Mars, launched the great experiment in human permanence on that foreign planet. The terrestrial benefits surrounding this commitment, like those that surrounded Apollo’s moon missions, are innumerable and enormous. The opportunity exists only for a limited time, and that time is slipping. Beyond that period, America will cede leadership in space to others. The consequences of surrender would be incalculable, likely devastating to national security and irreversible. Against today’s international backdrop, you could say that the time is now or never. So, Mr. President, shall we get at it?

Robert Charles, a former Assistant Secretary of State to Colin Powell, served as staff director and counsel to US House Speaker Hastert, and conducted oversight of NASA from 1995 to 1999.  He is a Washington-DC-based consultant.

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