We must reaffirm America's leadership in space

Buzz Aldrin is right: America's social, economic, and national security depends on space exploration.  To ensure that this type of American exceptionalism continues into the future, we should follow the advice and guidance that he provided in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Now, Go Where No Man Has Gone Before," where he discusses the importance of space tourism and reasserting broader American leadership in space. 

We are making small steps, and we now need to make bigger ones.  In the past few weeks, America's space leadership received a major boost with the successful launch, orbit, and safe return of civilians to Earth on an extraordinary effort of national importance.  It proved our nation's resolve, strengthened our faith in the idea that we Americans can accomplish anything we set our minds to, and ushered in a new era of space tourism.  Last month, Space X successfully launched the "Dragon" spacecraft from Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, taking four crew members to orbit on the world's first all-civilian mission — a truly pathbreaking endeavor.   

Pad 39A is the same launch pad that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins to the Moon.  As we move forward, we again must work diligently to take the lead in human space exploration.  When the Apollo 11 crew launched on a Saturn V rocket and headed for the lunar surface, Americans looked up and gathered to celebrate.  It was an American launch, but more importantly, it was a historic and groundbreaking undertaking aimed at landing the first men on the Moon — both American.   

The goals of Apollo 11 were to demonstrate what a free people can do.  America first proved its exceptional nature in space nearly 60 years ago with Alan Shepard's suborbital launch, followed by over 160 separate human launches.  All were critical and facilitated substantial progress toward establishing American pre-eminence in space.   

Aldrin warns us that American leadership in space may be waning; therefore, it is critically important and urgently needed that we Americans rekindle our passion for manned spaceflight.  Towards that end, as Aldrin makes clear, we must discuss the importance of why we must reassert our lead in additional human missions to the Moon and fulfill long awaited human missions to Mars.  According to Aldrin, returning to the Moon and Mars requires longer-term investments.  On the one hand, getting to the Moon first requires improving space-based infrastructure.  On the other hand, getting to Mars requires us to properly calculate launch trajectories, improve re-entry speeds, refine radiation protection equipment, and assure high-quality human life support for the mission's duration.

Aldrin notes that these bold goals and achievements will encourage and inspire a new generation to invest in human space exploration and expand America's role in space. 

This is why last month's Inspiration4 mission was so critical.  The purpose of that flight was to prove it can be done — what American ingenuity and human space exploration are all about. 

This historic flight proved that a group of all-civilian, nonprofessional astronauts can board a private spacecraft and blast off into orbit for three days.  It also demonstrated that a private company can ferry humans safely to and from orbit, much like a transatlantic flight, without government assistance.  At its core, it symbolized risk-taking, American entrepreneurship at its best. 

The Inspiration4 crew is not the first non-government-trained group to go to space.  In the early days of the Space Shuttle Program, NASA expected to fly so frequently that it would be able to accommodate average Americans.  To expedite this process, it sought to send a teacher to space, then a journalist, and then an artist.  Even congressional members went to space, including U.S. Navy pilot and former senator Jake Garn (R-Utah) and then-representative Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who now serves as NASA administrator.  Tragically, these civilian participant flights all changed following the Challenger explosion in 1986. 

Last month's Inspiration4 flight and Blue Origin's NS-18 mission in October gave Americans a chance to see what the future of civilian space flight might look like under American leadership.  Our nation was exhilarated, inspired, and gratified to see an American rocket, carrying civilian American astronauts, from American soil, into space and safely returned.  As Aldrin would say, now we must look toward the future but also remember to apply lessons of the past.  It is time to look beyond Earth's orbit and again toward the Moon and Mars.   

In all of this, one basic truth is clear: if America cannot freely operate in space — for civilian and military purposes — much of what we do on Earth will be compromised and become unreliable or perhaps impossible.  That is why prioritizing and reaffirming America's leadership in space is, in effect, an act of proactive national defense.  Space matters. 

Kent Johnson, a former F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Warthog fighter pilot, is a former political-military adviser on the staff of the secretary of the Air Force (International Affairs) and senior adviser to the Royal Air Force think-tank.  Currently, Kent is a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and past assistant to the Court of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots.  He is a political science adjunct (on sabbatical) at North Central Texas College specializing in defense studies.

Image: Chris Thompson/SpaceX.

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