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Presidential inauguration
The inauguration of a new president in January 2009 provides the best opportunity propose a major new initiative to create a new, low-cost space transportation infrastructure. (credit: White House photo by Paul Morse)

Becoming a true spacefaring America

It’s now less than two years until a new president will be inaugurated. Probably, you have also started to wonder if anything will change with respect to American space activities with the new president.

Will the next president share a sense of America’s destiny as a true spacefaring nation by expressing an understanding of the importance of space to the United States’ prosperity and security in the 21st century? Will the next president see new “American space enterprises” as the means to address important national problems and challenges of technological and industrial leadership, economic growth, and world leadership raised during the campaign? Or, will we end up disappointed… once again?

It’s easy to be cynical about the prospect for significant changes in the overall American space enterprise with the next presidential administration, and it’s easy to point fingers at politicians as the cause of our cynicism. On reflection, however, the root cause lies closer to home with the ineffective actions by the American pro-space community. We have not yet identified and effectively communicated proposed American space enterprise initiatives that have elicited strong public and political support.

I view the early months of the new presidential administration in 2009 as the only true opportunity to significantly alter the direction of America’s space enterprise through the changed policies and new programs needed for the United States to become a true spacefaring nation. The purpose of this commentary is to explore what types of changes are needed, why these changes are vital for the United States to undertake, and how these changes can be advocated to the American public and political leadership. Let’s start by looking ahead to what we should aim to achieve.

January, 2009: I’ve taken a couple of days to drive to Washington, DC, to listen to the inaugural address of the new President. The pro-space Internet websites, blogs, and chat rooms are buzzing with anticipation that a new, major space initiative will be included in the President-elect’s inaugural address. Meeting friends, we join the crowds converging on the National Mall to find a convenient location where we can, at least, hear the President-elect’s address. Despite the cold temperatures, the sunny winter skies reflect our upbeat mood. We’re sure that today is the day! The coordinated efforts of the American pro-space community over the last year appear to have paid off.

I view the early months of the new presidential administration in 2009 as the only true opportunity to significantly alter the direction of America’s space enterprise.

Now: What exactly are we missing? To start, we need to reflect on what the politician’s role in our political system is with respect to solving problems and undertaking new challenges. Politicians are not engineers; they do not create new technological solutions to problems or create new national opportunities through innovative technology advancements. Their role is to catalyze public policy and government programs to apply public and private resources to solving problems and addressing challenges of importance to the American public.

Politicians, particularly those of the political stature to be president, are very interested in proposing solutions to important issues and challenges. This is, after all, a primary currency of presidential campaigns. There are, however, criteria that must be met if a proposed solution is to be adopted.

  1. Can the problem or challenge be perceived by the public as important?
  2. Is the time for change clearly evident?
  3. Have reasonable solutions been identified?
  4. Are the needed resources available?
  5. Is the cost on par with the public’s perceived importance of solving the problem or undertaking the challenge?
  6. Will the implementation of the solution sustain needed public support?
  7. Will the solution draw sufficient political support to be enacted and funded?
  8. Is the solution likely to succeed?

Proposing answers to these questions, through proposed updates to U.S. space policies and new space enterprise initiatives, is what the American pro-space community now needs to undertake to positively influence the next president.

January, 2009: In the last couple of weeks, the mainstream news media started to pick up the scent that something was brewing with respect to space. The Middle East, terrorism, heath care, and taxes were certain to be main topics of the President-elect’s inaugural address. Certainly, everyone was interested in the first two. But, there was a sense of surprise in the news media that in the face of major on-going international problems, such as terrorism, the President-elect was expected to place significant emphasis on reshaping American technological policies and national priorities. Strengthening American scientific, technological, and industrial leadership in the face of growing, worldwide competition was a major campaign theme. However, while the space program had been briefly mentioned a couple of times in national debates, now there was a new word popping up in the media reports and they were still, to our amusement, having some difficulty in getting their arms around it. The word was “spacefaring.” The rumors were that a key policy element of the President-elect’s speech would be to establish the priority for America to become a true spacefaring nation. The news media was struggling to explain what this meant and what would be different. One commentator had asked rhetorically, “Hadn’t the United States been a spacefaring nation since the 1960s?”

Now: So, what is first thing that the pro-space community needs to change? We need to move the public discussion of America’s future space activities from the tactical level to the strategic level. Commercial suborbital human spaceflight. space hotels. planetary robotic exploration. space-based solar power. the return of humans to the Moon. the human exploration of Mars, and even defense against impacting comets and asteroids are examples of tactical operations that logically follow from the strategic issue of the need for the United States to become a true spacefaring nation.

In late 2002, the Congressionally-chartered Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry (Aerospace Commission) expressed its primary conclusion about America’s future in space. “The Commission concludes that the nation will have to be a space-faring nation to be the global leader in the 21st century—our freedom, mobility, and quality of life will depend on it. America must explore and exploit space to assure national and planetary security, economic benefit and scientific discovery.” (Emphasis added)

What is a spacefaring nation? The dictionary definition is a nation that launches vehicles into space. An increasing number of nations have the ability to launch payloads into space. The vision of a 21st century spacefaring nation is far more than simply launching rockets into space. I believe that it now needs to be defined in terms of a capability to operate in space, safely and routinely. Hence, a true spacefaring nation is one that has command of space through technology, enabling its citizens, as spacefarers, to readily access and work in space to reap knowledge, wealth, and security from space.

Neither the United States nor any other nation has yet become a true spacefaring nation. None, yet, has the practical capabilities that enable their citizens to readily access space for research, commerce, exploration, settlement, or for the simple enjoyment of being there (as we are frequently told by those lucky few who are given the opportunity to travel to space.) By extending this line of reasoning, the benefits of becoming a true spacefaring nation are clear. America will be able to do what no nation has yet accomplished—have the ability to fully tap the knowledge, wealth, and security from space and to be among the first to do so.

January, 2009: As we expected, the inaugural address was not overly specific in terms of what the new administration will be undertaking. It touched all of the international and domestic issues, raised during the nearly two-year long presidential campaign, to establish the bond of trust needed by the president to effectively wield national power. Towards the end of these speeches, each new president usually seeks to frame a vision for the new administration. Kennedy ended with “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.”

The new President chose to turn to space to establish his vision for a nation being transformed. “One thing that we have come to realize is that, striving as we have, the residual challenges of the 20th century that are important and must be addressed do not have easy 20th century solutions. We are now in the 21st century and we must seek, identify, and implement new 21st century solutions for these 20th century problems.”

The President continued. “At the beginning of the 19th century, the handful of states that was then America turned west, becoming a continental, industrial nation. At the beginning of the 20th century, we turned to the frontier of flight, establishing our aeronautical motto of ‘higher, faster, farther’ that created the basis for a true global society where Americans can easily travel almost anywhere in the world to do the business of America. Now, we must, as a nation, stretch our wings farther to become a true spacefaring nation. We must provide Americans with the ability to travel to space and within space so that Americans can conduct the business of America in space to seek the knowledge, wealth, and security that space offers for solving the important 20th century problems as well as the 21st century challenges we will undoubtedly face.”

Neither the United States nor any other nation has yet become a true spacefaring nation. None, yet, has the practical capabilities that enable their citizens to readily access space for research, commerce, exploration, settlement, or for the simple enjoyment of being there.

Now: The American public and its political leaders seek paths to reestablish our national confidence and optimism that has been severely stressed these past years. Historically, America has turned to building new national logistics infrastructure as a primary means of moving the nation forward. After the War of 1812, we quickly began to build the roads, canals, steamboat lines, and eastern railroads that truly opened the western territories to settlement and industrialization. After the Civil War, we built the first transcontinental railroad and the Brooklyn and Eads Bridges—all challenges that many thought technically impossible. After the Spanish-American War, we built the Panama Canal. To help end the Great Depression, we built the Tennessee Valley Authority’s dams and waterworks, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. After World War 2, we tremendously expanded our cities and universities to provide homes and education for the millions of returning veterans. After the Korean War, we built the interstate highway system and, through the introduction of jet-powered commercial transport, led in establishing the global air travel infrastructure. After the Gulf War, we built the Internet and wireless communications.

Throughout our history, we have used building new infrastructure as the key to unlock new frontiers and foster economic growth. Not only does the construction of the infrastructure provide new capabilities that physically open the new frontier to settlement and commerce, but it establishes a new industrial mastery of operations that provides the products and services needed by government and private enterprises to effectively participate in opening new frontiers. It is this public-private partnership approach—sometimes formal, sometimes informal—that has been very successful throughout America’s history.

In 2001, the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (Space Commission) noted the importance of creating such operational mastery in space: “The first era of the space age was one of experimentation and discovery. Telstar, Mercury and Apollo, Voyager and Hubble, and the Space Shuttle taught Americans how to journey into space and allowed them to take the first tentative steps toward operating in space while enlarging their knowledge of the universe. We are now on the threshold of a new era of the space age, devoted to mastering operations in space… Mastering near-earth space operations is still in its early stages. As mastery over operating in space is achieved, the value of activity in space will grow.” (Emphasis added)

page 2: evaluating the proposal >>


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