The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 


 
President Bush at NASA
Because President Bush, a Republican, proposed the Vision for Space Exploration, many Democrats automatically opposed it regardless of the program’s own merits. (credit: White House)

Why Democrats should support space exploration

I spent a large chunk of 2004 in the trenches of a vicious political battle in Austin, serving as a staffer to a Democratic candidate who was attempting to unseat a Republican member of the Texas State Legislature. It was one of hundreds of such campaigns then being waged across the country, some large and others small, all of them taking place in the shadow of the fierce presidential contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

Surrounded as I was by partisan Democrats, I heard more than my fair share of ridicule and exasperation directed against President Bush. In most cases, I laughed at the jokes or joined in the denouncements just as heartily as any of my colleagues. After all, I strongly disagreed with Bush’s positions on just about every conceivable issue and still do. I imagine that veterans of 2004 Republican campaigns heard similar digs directed towards John Kerry.

But, much to the surprise of my colleagues, I rushed to the defense of President Bush whenever the subject of the Vision for Space Exploration came up.

Among my Democratic colleagues on the campaign staff, opposition to Bush’s space policy sometimes seemed to fester into opposition to space exploration in general.

Immediately following Bush’s January, 2004, announcement of NASA’s new mandate to return to the Moon and prepare for an expedition to Mars, it became fashionable for Democrats to trash the project. Most of the major contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination tossed out sarcastic or dismissive comments. Senator Lieberman went so far as to claim, without evidence, that the program would cost a trillion dollars. When the Spirit Mars rover experienced a near-fatal glitch shortly after Bush’s announcement, some Democrats made comments that sounded suspiciously as if they actually wanted the robot to fail.

Needless to say, space policy was not an issue in the local campaign I was involved in. But every once in a while the subject would come up in conversation. Among my Democratic colleagues on the campaign staff, opposition to Bush’s space policy sometimes seemed to fester into opposition to space exploration in general. The old arguments were tossed out again:

“Space exploration costs too much. The money would be better spent on healthcare and education.”
“Space exploration is dangerous. Look what happened to the poor people on the Columbia.”
“Space exploration doesn’t really give us any benefit. What good is it to have people walk around on the Moon? Besides, we’ve already been there.”
“We shouldn’t go into space until we have solved all the problems we have here on Earth.”

Since this was about politics, it didn’t come as a surprise. Bush was for it, so Democrats were against it. Had President Clinton announced an identical program of space exploration in the middle of his time in office, Republicans undoubtedly would have viciously attacked him for it, probably using many of the same arguments.

If unsurprising, I did find the sudden Democratic opposition to space exploration rather ironic. After all, the Democratic Party has historically been very supportive of space exploration. It is no coincidence that the two most important NASA facilities in the country, Kennedy Space Center and Johnson Space Center, are named after Democratic presidents. John F. Kennedy had the political courage and wisdom to launch the Apollo program and Lyndon B. Johnson had the political skill and willpower to see it through. When John Glenn ran for the Senate, he did so as a Democrat.

The Democratic Party supposedly stands for progressive values, while the Republican Party ostensibly stands for conservative ideals. It sometimes seems that these identifications have ceased to have any real meaning, but in terms of classical political philosophy, conservatism seeks to maintain society as it is or go back to what it once was, while progressivism seeks the transformation of society from what it is to what it should be. If the Democratic Party still holds true to its progressive beliefs, it should be a staunch defender and supporter of space exploration. Rather than jeer Bush for the Vision for Space Exploration, the Democrats should have cheered him for it.

It might strike some as odd to associate space exploration with political progressivism. But space exploration is about far more than sending robots to take pictures of the rings of Saturn or sending astronauts to pick up rocks on the Moon. Like political progressivism itself, space exploration is about a glorious and hopeful vision of the future. It’s about making the future better than the past.

In response to the suggestion that we should solve our problems on Earth before we head out into space, which is what most objections to space exploration eventually come down to, I would respond that the solutions to many of our problems are to be found in space.

Consider protecting the environment, which Democrats claim as one of their main issues. A solid reason to support a robust space program is that, in the long run, genuine solutions to our planet’s environmental problem will require easy access to space.

If the Democratic Party still holds true to its progressive beliefs, it should be a staunch defender and supporter of space exploration. Rather than jeer Bush for the Vision for Space Exploration, the Democrats should have cheered him for it.

The single greatest cause of environmental damage is the production of energy. Conventional power-generation technology involves the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil or the use of nuclear fission reactors, and we know that renewable energy sources can only go so far in replacing fossil fuel and nuclear fission power. In the long run, the only genuine solutions to these problems require the use of space resources. Space-based solar power is one possible answer; nuclear fusion using lunar helium-3 is another. Energy beyond imagining, more than enough to lift the entire world up into an acceptable standard of living, without polluting a single environment, is ours for the taking. We simply have to decide to do it.

Others have pointed out the immense potential of exploiting the resources of the asteroid belt, which contains sufficient raw materials to meet every conceivable need of humanity. Automated mining operations could dismantle the asteroids and transport them to Earth orbit, where they could be brought down to the surface using space elevator technology, now under development. If we could successfully exploit the resources of the Asteroid Belt, we would never again have to carve huge scars into our planet’s surface in our quest for resources.

So, imagine a world without smokestacks or strip mines, a world where the air we breathe and the water we drink is not tainted with noxious chemicals, a world where all our energy and material needs are met by the resources of the solar system, freeing the Earth to be the paradise we all want it to be. Rather than simply complaining about environmental problems, easy access to space would give us the power to actually do something about this.

This kind of thinking may be visionary and imaginative, but what’s wrong with having vision and imagination? If you ask me, the main problem in modern politics is that our so-called “leaders” are distinctly lacking in the field of vision and imagination. Societies that become overly cautious and averse to risk are societies that will not be around for very long.

As the party that claims to be the progressive force in American politics, the Democrats could use some vision and imagination as they lay out what their vision of the future. The knee-jerk opposition to Bush’s space proposals among the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates illustrates that the powers-that-be within the party are more concerned with scoring political points than holding true to their progressive values.

The advocates of space exploration tend to be a starry-eyed bunch. We envision a future that sees humanity thriving in colonies on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. We envision a future where heroic tales of exploration and discovery have replaced stories of bloody warfare in the collective imagination of humanity—where the exploration of space has become what the philosopher William James called “the moral equivalent of war.” We envision a future where the resources of the solar system have created such abundance that no human being is in need. In short, we envision a future here humanity lives up to its full potential.

The people I had the honor of working with during the 2004 campaign season were some of the most intelligent and idealistic people I have ever known. They also had a hopeful vision of the future, where poor children had access to proper healthcare, everyone was given a good education, and one could take a deep breath and not worry about inhaling pollution. To these people, if not to people in the upper echelons of the party, being a Democrat was all about wanting to create a good future for all people. They also want to help humanity live up to its full potential.

Space advocates can come from both parties and might be bitterly divided over the war in Iraq, abortion, tax policy, and uncountable other things. However, on the subject of space exploration, there is no reason why Democrats and Republicans cannot be allies.

Far from being antagonistic, it seems to me that these two visions are natural allies. Each is oriented to the future and each is full of hope. More importantly, if pursued in the right way, they can mutually support one another. The space program can provide the solutions to many of the problems Democrats care about, while the pursuit of egalitarianism, international cooperation, excellence in education and other Democratic issues can contribute to a successful space program.

All this is not to say that Republicans are opposed or should be opposed to space exploration—far from it. There are many aspects of Republican ideology which should make it supportive of space exploration, too. In my mind, space exploration should not be a partisan issue. Space advocates can come from both parties and might be bitterly divided over the war in Iraq, abortion, tax policy, and uncountable other things. However, on the subject of space exploration, there is no reason why Democrats and Republicans cannot be allies.

The fact that it has fallen to a Republican president to issue the Vision for Space Exploration should not keep Democrats from supporting it. Divided as Americans are on so many other issues, the expansion of humanity throughout the solar system is a cause worthy of a Grand Alliance.


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