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STS-132 launch
Retiring the space shuttle before a replacement system is ready is not a sign of US leadership in space, in the eyes of some. (credit: J. Foust)

American leadership in space: leadership through capability

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Recently, Lou Friedman wrote a piece where he articulated his view on what American leadership in space means to many and what it means to him (see “American leadership”, The Space Review, February 14, 2011). I would like to respond by providing some context that I think is lacking from the discussion.

The United States’ goal should be leadership through spacefaring capabilities, in all sectors.

First, let me start by saying that I agree with Mr. Friedman’s assertion that “American leadership is a phrase we hear bandied about a lot in political circles in the United States, as well as in many space policy discussions.” I have been at many space forums in my career where I’ve heard the phrase used by speakers of various backgrounds, political ideologies, and nation. Like Mr. Friedman states, “it has many different meanings, most derived from cultural or political biases, some of them contradictory”. This is true: many nations, as well as organizations and individuals worldwide, have different preferences and views as to what American leadership in space is, and/or what it should be. He also concludes that paragraph by stating that American leadership in space could also be viewed as “synonymous with American… hegemony”. I again will agree that some people within the United Stats and elsewhere have this view toward American leadership. However, just because people believe certain viewpoints regarding American leadership does not mean that those views are accurate assessments or definitions of what actions demonstrate US leadership in the space medium.

When it comes to space exploration and development, including national security space and commercial, I would disagree somewhat with Mr. Friedman’s assertion that space is “often” overlooked in “foreign relations and geopolitical strategies”. My contention is that while space is indeed overlooked in national grand geopolitical strategies by many in national leadership, space is used as a tool for foreign policy and relations more often than not. In fact, I will say that the US space program has become less of an effort for the advancement of US space power and exploration, and is used more as a foreign policy tool to “shape” the strategic environment to what President Obama referred to in his National Security Strategy as “The World We Seek”. Using space to shape the strategic environment is not a bad thing in and of itself. What concerns me with this form of “shaping” is that we appear to have changed the definition of American leadership as a nation away from the traditional sense of the word. Some seem to want to base our future national foundations in space using the important international collaboration piece as the starting point. Traditional national leadership would start by advancing United States’ space power capabilities and strategies first, then proceed toward shaping the international environment through allied cooperation efforts. The United States’ goal should be leadership through spacefaring capabilities, in all sectors. Achieving and maintaining such leadership through capability will allow for increased space security and opportunities for all and for America to lead the international space community by both technological and political example.

As other nations pursue excellence in space, we should take our responsibilities seriously, both from a national capability standpoint, and as country who desires expanded international engagement in space.

The world has recognized America as the leaders in space because it demonstrated technological advancement by the Apollo lunar landings, our deep space exploration probes to the outer planets, and deploying national security space missions. We did not become the recognized leaders in astronautics and space technology because we decided to fund billions into research programs with no firm budgetary commitment or attainable goals. We did it because we made a national level decision to do each of them, stuck with it, and achieved exceptional things in manned and unmanned spaceflight. We have allowed ourselves to drift from this traditional strategic definition of leadership in space exploration, rapidly becoming participants in spaceflight rather than the leader of the global space community. One example is shutting down the space shuttle program without a viable domestic spacecraft chosen and funded to commence operations upon retirement of the fleet. We are paying millions to rely on Russia to ferry our astronauts to an International Space Station that US taxpayers paid the lion’s share of the cost of construction. Why would we, as United States citizens and space advocates, settle for this? The current debate on commercial crew and cargo as the stopgap between shuttle and whatever comes next could and hopefully will provide some new and exciting solutions to this particular issue. However, we need to made a decision sooner rather than later.

Finally, one other issue that concerns me is the view of the world “hegemony” or “superiority” as dirty words. Some seem to view these words used in policy statements or speeches as a direct threat. In my view, each nation (should they desire) should have freedom of access to space for the purpose of advancing their “security, prestige and wealth” through exploration like we do. However, to maintain leadership in the space environment, space superiority is a worthy and necessary byproduct of the traditional leadership model. If your nation is the leader in space, it would pursue and maintain superiority in their mission sets and capabilities. In my opinion, space superiority does not imply a wall of orbital weapons preventing other nations from access to space, nor does it preclude international cooperation among friendly nations. Rather, it indicates a desire as a country to achieve its goals for national security, prestige, and economic prosperity for its people, and to be known as the best in the world with regards to space technology and astronautics. I can assure you that many other nations with aggressive space programs, like ours traditionally has been, desire the same prestige of being the best at some, if not all, parts of the space pie. Space has been characterized recently as “congested, contested, and competitive”; the quest for excellence is just one part of international space competition that, in my view, is a good and healthy thing. As other nations pursue excellence in space, we should take our responsibilities seriously, both from a national capability standpoint, and as country who desires expanded international engagement in space.

If America wants to retain its true leadership in space, it must approach its space programs as the advancement of its national “security, prestige and wealth” by maintaining its edge in spaceflight capabilities and use those demonstrated talents to advance international prestige and influence in the space community. These energies and influence can be channeled to create the international space coalitions of the future that many desire and benefit mankind as well as America. Leadership will require sound, long-range exploration strategies with national and international political will behind it. American leadership in space is not a choice. It is a requirement if we are to truly lead the world into space with programs and objectives “worthy of a great nation”.