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Why Should America Explore Space?

Few people lack an opinion on “what” the NASA should be doing. But even fewer have tried to answer the overarching question of “why” we would want to invest considerable resources in exploring our extraterrestrial neighborhood. Yet a comprehensive answer may be the key to reviving the struggling space program.

This week, the George C. Marshall Institute brought people together to discuss the question. The forum, titled “Exploring Space: Considering U.S. Goals and Aspirations for Its Space Exploration Programs,” was the Marshall Institute’s final program in a year of space-related events. Three speakers spoke at the forum and came from a variety of commercial and policy backgrounds related to the aerospace industry.

All three speakers agreed that the space program has been trapped in an identity crisis. It seems as if each president has entered office and imposed a new vision for the space program. As a result, NASA can be broken down into a series of grand projects including the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle, and Apollo.

Apollo was an enormously successful program because it answered the “why” question. The program had two overarching goals. The United States would land men on the moon to enhance its technological prowess vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and in doing so would make a massive research and capital investment which would stimulate American industry. The public supported this program and gave it the priority needed to maintain the funding needed.

But the Apollo model proved unsustainable in the long run. What did the program do after the mission was accomplished? For one thing, there was a large workforce that was employed under Apollo. So the Space Shuttle emerged to replace it. The continuance of these stand-alone projects now means that NASA is simply considered “special.” This means two things for NASA, and neither is particularly nice. The first is that the program can be seen as “unessential” and a prime target for cuts. The second is that it may attract the ire of other programs which also want to be considered “special.” The only way to save the program is to present it as an essential component of the American grand strategy.

The three speakers differed over how to accomplish this task.

The first to speak was Charles Miller, former NASA Senior Advisor for Commercial Space and president of a firm that provides space-related consulting. He claimed that without a frontier to expand towards, America has turned inward. Space will fill that void and bring a myriad of economic benefits. As such, he advocated an aggressive commercial approach which would involve privatization of spaceflight. The great challenge, of course, is the astronomical cost (this pun was actually not intended) of carrying cargo into space. The government’s role is to provide the initial demand for fledgling spaceflight companies by purchasing ‘tickets’ for its space missions aboard commercial rockets, which could help private companies approach economies of scale and drive costs down. He pointed to the success of recent commercial partnerships to make his case. SpaceX’s Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets cost the company less than $500 million to develop. It would have cost NASA $3-4 billion to do the same within its institutional structure.

James Vedda, the Senior Policy Analyst for The Aerospace Corporation and author of the book Becoming Spacefarers: Rescuing America’s Space Program, also supported increased commercial involvement in space. But he proposed an increased government role as an investor in “space infrastructure.” While there have been great strides in space technology, it has often been viewed as a “step-by-step” process. The Apollo program was an achievement, but it did not leave any infrastructure behind for future missions. Similarly, the International Space Station is not intended to remain in space permanently, and rarely supports space missions apart from its own. When it is gone, and space missions will have to carry all necessary support materiel with them. Like Miller, Vedda used frontier analogies in making his case. A pioneer whose wagon broke down en route to California, for example, would have been able to expect places along the way to buy spare parts instead of having to return to St. Louis for supplies. There should be a similar support infrastructure in space to supplement activity there. This would bring costs down and increase safety. Vedda continued the infrastructure analogy by discussing the transcontinental railroad. While not justifiable as a commercial endeavor, the railroad brought remarkable economic opportunities for the nation. In a similar way, space is too expensive and remote to currently exploit for resources. But government investment in developing a support infrastructure in space may bridge the gap.

Bill Adkins, a former director of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee and president of a consulting firm in space and defense government relations, spoke last. He argued that scientific benefits justify the program. He was skeptical of the ability of commercial enterprise to mine for resources in space. He instead supported government-sponsored science missions as a viable future for the space program.

Current NASA policy is based on a “destination” model. This model looks at overcoming progressively further goals and has informed the current strategy of visiting an asteroid and then going to Mars. This program is essentially nostalgic for the Apollo days, but it falls short because there is no actual permanent goal or overarching mission.  What will result is the same commitment and sustainability problems that plagued Constellation. The government would need a reason to build a permanent lunar base or a deep-space mission base in the Lagrangian points. In the meantime, the primary motivator is increasing American prestige and that NASA programs are “special.” For the space program to become “mainstream” and a top policy priority, the public will need to be inspired by the prospects that are in store by this new “frontier.” This will involve a mix of all three approaches. Aggressively promoting commercial enterprise partnerships, building an infrastructure to support sustainable space activities, and providing initial demand by investing in science missions will provide a sound direction. It is a visionary approach with potentially unprecedented economic returns. And by sacrificing high-flying adventure for a gradual increase in capital and commercial partnership, this approach could also be affordable.