The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NSRC 2020

White House
While it may appear to Europeans that the White House has crafted a grand space strategy, in fact there is “an ongoing and very intense debate” on space issues. (credit: J. Foust)

American strategy for space: comments on a French perspective

In the chapter on “The Baffling Americans,” which ended his wonderful 1983 book, The Europeans, the late Luigi Barzini described how one Italian statesman figured out what the US government’s plan of action was because “General X made a speech, he enumerated, the New York Times had published an editorial, Columnist Y had leaked a secret, the Secretary of State had issued a communiqué, the President had answered a particular question at a press conference, Senator Z, had given an interview, the Italian Ambassador had had a hunch… He had connected all these declarations, statements, hunches, leaks and articles and come up with a tidy answer. ‘This is their grand design.’… When he saw the look of incredulity on my face, ‘Don’t you believe it?’ he asked. I explained that, yes, he could be right, but he could also be entirely wrong…”

Like Barzini’s Italian statesman, the French space analyst, Alain Dupas, writing in last week’s Space News, has detected a new American strategy: “Dual Space Dominance.” He has brought together a few threads, and integrated them into a vision of where he thinks the US is going. He might be right, and there is certainly a good case to be made for an integrated approach to America’s space effort, but he has mistaken an ongoing and very intense debate for a settled agreement on a long-term approach. He is projecting onto the messy, and very public, American political process, a European approach to long-term strategy.

The thesis is that the US has decided to go for undisputed military supremacy in Earth orbit and at the same time to dominate the solar system through the new vision of combined robotic and human exploration. As Dupas sees it, “…the United States wants to gain the benefits of its multi-decade investment in large scale civilian space systems.”

Dupas has mistaken an ongoing and very intense debate for a settled agreement on a long-term approach.

Historically, it is rare for a nation’s grand strategy to emerge full blown from an individual conceptualizer’s brow. America’s Cold War containment strategy, authored by George Kennan in the late forties, was the exception. More often, these policies emerge from a complex set of factors, including historical experience, the nature of the dominant military technology of the age, geography and geopolitics, relative economic strength, domestic politics and, what might be called the “animal spirits of the age”. Often the basic idea has been in use for decades or centuries before anyone thinks to describe it as doctrine. This was certainly the case with Britain’s successful balance of power policy.

Dupas recognizes this when he points out that the policy making process has certainly not been “rational and coherent.” On the other hand, the Bush administration’s painfully slow and methodical way of doing business has ensured that most of its policies and, in particular, its space policies, tend to fit together logically. The process that brought us the January 14th vision was, as far as this outsider can tell, far more carefully thought through than any space policy decision in US history, with the possible exception of Eisenhower’s original decision to set up NASA as a separate civilian agency.

As has been pointed out before, this is the best-organized White House since Ike’s. A rigidly adhered to staff process is essential for this system to work. This means that, for major problems and programs, any number of meeting and studies must be prepared, and everyone involved must get to have their say at the appropriate level. Questions get asked and ideas and assumptions get challenged. The resulting end product, whether one calls it a grand strategy, a vision, or a roadmap, is intellectually coherent and supports America’s long-term national goals.

Dupas warns the US against “arrogant unilateralism,” which could be a way of saying that he thinks the Europeans should demand what Walter Russell Mead, in the latest issue of The National Interest, called the “unreciprocated veto.” If ESA and the EU want to give China access to the Galileo program without taking American concerns into account, then why should America take their concerns seriously on issues such as space weaponization or the commercialization of celestial bodies. The US is not going to repeat the mistakes it made building the ISS, which has resulted in a Russian-controlled space station, 70 to 80 percent paid for by American taxpayers.

Old fashioned international cooperation where, for example, US instruments are flown on ESA’s spacecraft, or vice versa, is by far the best way to ensure solid progress. Involving foreign governments or contractors in the critical systems on the Crew Exploration Vehicle would be a major mistake. It would be far better to allow the international partners to build whole subsystems, such as extra-planetary automated construction systems. Canada’s valuable expertise in robotic manipulators that are used on both the shuttle and the ISS should be the model.

An American strategic goal of populating the solar system with US citizens is far more ambitious than anything Alain Dupas has detected, yet it is inherent in the long-term implications of Bush’s space vision.

According to Dupas, “Europeans tend to be skeptical of the value of human spaceflight.” Certainly, this is true of the former French Education and Science Minister, Claude Allegre, but, given the efforts the Italians, the Germans, and the Dutch, for example, have put into the ISS and, before that, into Spacelab, hostility towards people in space is nowhere near universal. President Chirac has seen fit to make France’s first woman in space, Claudie Haignere, his new Minister for European Affairs. He did this after she failed miserably to deal with a major revolt by France’s government-supported scientists. This says something about the prestige that one European government attaches to human spaceflight.

In the US, after a long and still unfinished debate, a consensus is emerging that people are an essential part of any space exploration program. The robotic exploration of the solar system only makes sense as the precursor to human exploration and settlement. Many space scientists have come to realize that, without the prospect for human exploration, funds for planetary exploration would be a small fraction of what they are now.

In NASA’s February 2004 “Vision for Space Exploration” paper, the US government includes as one of the most important questions that the program needs to answer, “…how could we live on other worlds?” This phrase could end up being the Balfour Declaration for space colonization. An American strategic goal of populating the solar system with US citizens is far more ambitious than anything Alain Dupas has detected, yet it is inherent in the long-term implications of Bush’s space vision. It is also consistent with the US tradition of big ideas and its quest for new forms of national greatness.