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SBSP illustration
Resources from space, such as space-based solar power, could be one rationale for continued and enhanced spaceflight efforts. (credit: ©Mafic Studios)

A vision for a new frontier purpose for American spaceflight

Part 1: A new path


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This nation has lost sight not only of what its purpose could and should be, but even a sense of the importance of any collective purpose. Beyond the usual areas where we disagree in our culture, the US no longer defines itself as it should, or worse, we let others define us and not care as we focus inward on our own individual, frequently hollow, pursuits at the expense of our civic duties. Worse, too, many of us—both as individuals and corporations—no longer define ourselves as American, even shunning nationalistic pride as something they are above, something that should be outgrown and left behind. We exist day to day, making money so we can consume products both informational and material, but we’re stagnating.

This nation once defined itself as a spacefaring nation, destined to explore the universe. However, the United States has not had a true national vision for space exploration since President Kennedy.

Current political and economic debates revolve around maintaining this cycle and no more; government spending and relief programs from either side of the aisle only maintain the status quo in an accelerating spiral of diminishing returns as no truly new opportunities for growth or wealth are created. The old, fiscally irresponsible way of doing things in politics has been led by a professional political class which has spent decades honing their skills for self-enrichment, bred from and enabled by a distracted, cynical, and apathetic public. This has left our country nearly bankrupt and in danger of ceding its national sovereignty and world leadership position.

One of the most important leadership roles for the United States is in the field of human space exploration, where the old way of doing things has nearly crippled our leadership there as well. Defining ourselves as a people, as a nation, with a purpose is the common ground we must reestablish right now in order to truly recover and restore the United States as the leader of the free world, on this planet and beyond.

Our history (warts and all…)

This nation established itself upon a frontier at a time when the accepted rules of human conduct were to fight over resources and territory, even among the indigenous tribes, who were fighting and killing each other over resources and territory before European settlers ever arrived. In hindsight, this was a terribly violent process when we apply our standards of today, but the bottom line is that we proved to be the civilization best able to take advantage of those resources and we used them for the benefit of the entire world by creating the nation which has existed up to this point. Yes, we’ve learned since then and matured, but the value of the unifying purpose of a frontier for expansion and growth has not changed.

This nation has mobilized for war many times in our past. World War II, for example, was a time when the US had a unity of purpose and a common sense of risk. War is a terrible way to unite a society, but it gave everyone a common bond that they were Americans and that this nation was doing something important in the world.

World War II in particular also demonstrates the fallacy of government spending on “make-work” jobs programs as a way to stimulate a country out of financial difficulty. While historians and economists also debate how or whether World War II got us out of the Great Depression, industries grew and new technologies were created in response to the common purpose of national survival. What if a similar unity of purpose becomes the way to solve the economic problems of the country today? The US was more focused on a national objective then and maybe that’s what we need now.

This nation once defined itself as a spacefaring nation, destined to explore the universe. However, the United States has not had a true national vision for space exploration since President Kennedy; that is, a vision clearly understood by the citizens, one that everyone could support, articulate, and thus themselves explain, and one which would mobilize every sector of industry and academia in support. Flawed and political a vision for space exploration as it was, “beating the Russians” at least could be expounded upon to describe the need to demonstrate to the rest of the world, particularly the non-aligned nations at the time that the US was superior in technology, freedom, and peaceful intentions over the Soviets and thus, the side to join.

A national space exploration program cannot survive in today’s financially constrained environment solely based on maintaining national pride and prestige, science for the sake of science alone, or hoped-for spin-offs like Velcro, Tang, or memory foam mattresses. Indefensible at best and intellectually lazy at worst, these rationales just don’t cut it anymore. The reasons for human space exploration given by our government never properly explained “why” to the American people. It must now be explained properly to generations whose understanding of why space exploration is important has been crippled by how NASA has done it (exploring and explaining) up to this point.

How we define ourselves today

This nation tweets and Facebooks and is connected to the “Global Mind”, but for what purpose? “Self-absorbed narcissistic admiration of our own self-authored web content,” is the scathing description by Mark Bauerlein in his book The Dumbest Generation. We’re told to pride ourselves as superior because we’ve transitioned to the information age and we value the creation of new intellectual properties more than physically inventing and engineering something truly new, as if that’s below us somehow. We move money around in creative ways and believe we’re creating new wealth.

Human exploration of space, and American leadership of that endeavor, is vital for three reasons.

When “bending metal” is actually involved, things like Maker Faire are seen as ground-breaking. Well-intentioned as it is, it’s more a sign of stagnation, of a society that can only manipulate the technology developed by their predecessors, not understanding the underlying principles of how it works and thus not able to surpass it, finding or creating anything new. The terms “Cargo Cult Science” or “Cargo Cult Programming” aptly describes this type of mimicry. Show me someone at Maker Faire with a (real) backpack fusion power reactor or a propellant-less field propulsion drive and then I will be impressed.

Fortunately there are exceptions to this trend: people like Elon Musk, Burt Rutan, Bob Bigelow, and others in the NewSpace industry. However, they are not as widely hailed as they should be and too many schoolchildren instead aspire to be sports stars, “American Idol” contestants, or the developer of the latest smartphone app.

Our educational system is not helping matters here either. Nature abhors a vacuum? So does bureaucracy and politics. Lacking a truly inspiring national purpose, the educational system has become subject to self-serving political manipulation and misuse and grown into what’s been described by both the Right and Left as the “Educational-Industrial Complex.” Not everyone needs to go to college, at least not right away, but everyone needs a marketable capability. As a nation, we need a better balance of college professionals and skilled trade professionals. A more definitive national purpose would help to shape our workforce educational and training requirements.

How do we define ourselves? We consume things. We consume others’ intellectual property and we consume entitlements from government, financed by a finite and dwindling source of revenue from the true remaining ‘Makers’. We live vicariously through the lives of celebrities and their hopefuls, through fictional television shows, movies, or increasingly immersive video games and fantasy football leagues, and we stop building anything truly new.

And we see where that has gotten us today: “Bread and Circuses” diversions while politicians fight for their own career survival at the expense of the survival of this nation. In a self-reinforcing cycle, a public lulled by the trappings of such consumerism has created this professional political class and allowed it to make both the legislative and executive branches of our government ineffective in moving the country forward as it becomes a game of whose turn is it at power, not what’s best for the nation. Leadership changes hands every few years but nothing really changes. There is, however, another path for those bold enough to choose it and bold enough to fight for it.

Getting back to why human space exploration is so important

Again, it’s something that has never been explained properly to the American people. NASA never had a real need to explain this as long as the funding kept flowing. NASA never had a reason to do it properly either, without a free-market commercial profit motive. Frontiers are more properly explored by individuals and businesses than governments with politically-motivated stimulus jobs programs. In their defense, NASA has always been, and today remains, full of dedicated and visionary people who want to lead humanity to the stars, but it is still a federal bureaucracy dependent upon political patronage and inconsistent funding which has hindered or prevented the success of numerous programs. The term “self-licking ice cream cone” was coined by former Air Force general Pete Worden specifically to describe NASA bureaucracy: a self-perpetuating system with no purpose other than sustaining itself.

To explain it properly, human exploration of space, and American leadership of that endeavor, is vital for three reasons:

  1. Dealing with the established fact of near-Earth objects (NEOs) which, on occasion, collide with Earth
  2. Expansion of human civilization beyond a single planet, led by the freest nation on Earth
  3. The discovery and use of new resources which do not exist on the surface of this planet

First, the most important reason. Aside from critiques of the movies themselves, Armageddon and Deep Impact socialized the fact that Earth is in the path of chunks of debris left over from the formation of the Solar system. Yes, those films were just science fiction, except for the part about NEOs possibly wiping out all life on Earth. Actual declassified data from US Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites shows that several times a year there are high-altitude airbursts over one kiloton in explosive yield from pieces of this natural debris which detonate from reentry heating. These are the ones too small to reach the ground. There are much larger ones. A permanent, expanding human presence in space, in Earth orbit and beyond, will give us an increasing capability to detect these threats, study them, and try to deal with them before they become imminent threats where we find ourselves staring down a cosmic gun barrel.

Second, expansion of human civilization beyond this single planet is a safeguard against any kind of cataclysm which could devastate the Earth, ranging from bioterrorist plague to nuclear war to an unavoidable collision with a NEO, to name a few. Expansion implies another word: “Settlement”. That means permanent, growing communities of people who will live, work, raise families, and eventually grow old and die in those settlements, growing new branches of human civilization in the process. Settlement of frontiers, historically, has also served as a “relief valve” for the parent civilization allowing those better suited for the freedom of the frontier to get there and make something out of it. As a frontier nation, we should remember and understand this.

NASA may have been appropriate at the time for a politically symbolic space exploration program competing for hearts and minds against the Soviet Union, but not an effective one of frontier exploration and settlement.

Finally, the discovery and use of resources beyond Earth has often been criticized as walking away from the problems we’ve created here simply to strip mine and pollute other planets. Well, building our modern technological civilization was a necessarily messy process but we’ve learned to clean up after ourselves along the way and use resources more efficiently. We are, however, about to hit a developmental plateau where the sustainable, renewable resources of one planet are not enough to maintain our technological growth, and we as a civilization will suffer either a slow death of decay and decline or a quicker death through escalating resource conflicts. Slow death or quick death for civilization is still death, but use of off-world resources gives us a third choice. Wood led to coal, coal led to oil, and oil led to nuclear fission, but steps to more efficient solar power, cleaner and safer nuclear fusion, or energy sources we don’t yet know are possible lie off-world, with materials and conditions which do not or simply cannot exist on the surface of this planet and cannot be recreated or simulated. For example:

  • Space Based Solar Power (SBSP), a concept studied for decades but only now on the edge of practicality would provide billions of watts of power from orbiting platforms at far greater efficiency than ground based solar power. Studies by the Department of Defense National Security Space Office, the Solar High Study Group, and recently the International Academy of Astronautics all point to the potential of SBSP to provide large quantities of clean energy, possibly preventing resource conflicts in the first place.
  • Helium-3, for example, is a rare isotope of helium that exists in small quantities on Earth but in abundance on the Moon and elsewhere in the solar system. It holds the potential to be an ideal fuel for clean, safe fusion reactors. It’s true that those reactors are still in development, but until we have commercial quantities for more research, we won’t know for sure what the true potential is.
  • Antimatter, a very real form of matter and a highly energetic source of power for space propulsion is prohibitively expensive to produce in large quantities in particle accelerators here on Earth, however naturally-occurring amounts could be found trapped in, and collected from, planetary magnetic fields.
  • The promise has long existed to use the microgravity/freefall environment of space for researching biological processes, making better pharmaceuticals, or creating foamed metals and alloys impossible to produce on Earth that would enable lighter, stronger structures or materials with physical properties useful in other areas such as energy production. Again, until we can do this on a commercial scale we won’t know what is truly possible.

Yes, it’s that important…

So, human space exploration and settlement is a much larger issue than hoped-for technology spin-offs like Velcro, memory foam, and Tang. Science for the sake of science is important, but getting the public to happily and consistently pay for it as a central purpose of space exploration is a losing issue today. National pride and prestige was a necessary Cold War tool to demonstrate our superiority over the Soviet Union, but not now. It’s also far too important to be used as just a jobs program for congressional districts. NASA-related job losses in Texas and Florida are a hard thing, but there are better ways to deal with them, and create even more jobs in the process, than using them as a “political football”. Economic growth in this sector means more real jobs and more real growth in the GDP versus arguing over who get taxed or whose entitlements get cut; it’s time to quit arguing over the pie if we can bake 100 more, and in the process render moot some of those arguments.

But, can NASA evolve out of the self-perpetuating bureaucracy mode and become capable of focusing on these three key areas? Does this require a new agency with NASA refocused on enabling technology research? Is this a military/paramilitary role? If you haven’t read it lately (or ever), see Pete Worden’s Whither Space Power, specifically Chapter 4 and “Seizing the Solar System”. In it, then-Brigadier General Worden is pretty clear in arguing for a military exploration agency:

Currently, NASA is the agent for US space exploration. This is counter to traditional American approaches to exploring and exploiting new territory. It is also counter to common sense. NASA is a research and technology organization. It has little incentive to develop, open, and protect new areas for commercial exploitation…

Until the late 1950s, exploration of the unknown remained primarily a military function. As the frontiers grew “up” into the atmosphere and space rather than “out” across the prairies and mountains, American exploration retained a military character.

So, NASA may have been appropriate at the time for a politically symbolic space exploration program competing for hearts and minds against the Soviet Union, but not an effective one of frontier exploration and settlement.

Go to NASA’s website today and you will find many missions with a small “m” but no “Mission” in the broader strategic context of supporting the security (economic or physical) interests of the American people, much less humanity. Ill-defined and too abstract to use for long-term strategic planning, it’s no wonder the people in power have been able to justify their continued misuse of human space exploration as a political football.

The Global Exploration Roadmap from the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, of which NASA is a member among 13 other exploration agencies, begins to focus more on the fundamentally important missions, among too many others, but with no clear mandate or authority to “go do”. Their own words state it is a “nonbinding product”. By comparison, look at the US Navy. They have a clearly stated, simple mission to: “maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.”

A new, refocused national space exploration agency would reestablish American leadership and exceptionalism.

NASA’s development of vehicles, post-Apollo, is symptomatic of this lack of a clearly defined mission. The Space Shuttle, as technologically advanced as it was, suffered from design by committee in order to satisfy the disparate needs of the science community, satellite companies, and the military, and ended up serving none of them as well as promised. Current discussion of NASA’s Space Launch System involves debate over sole-source contracts in order to save existing shuttle hardware jobs in the districts of certain congressional members. At least when Congress tries to force the purchase of unwanted aircraft for similar political motivations, the Air Force stands up in opposition as good stewards of the taxpayer’s money.

The military requirements process states that you start with a clear mission first. From that, you can derive what effects you need to produce in order to accomplish that mission, then what capabilities produce those effects, and finally what your requirements are to give you those capabilities in terms of organization, training, or equipping, whichever combination is best to most effectively accomplish the mission with available resources. For example, the Requirements Analysis question “Do we buy and maintain our own vehicle to get from home to where we accomplish our mission or do we lease the vehicle or do we just buy a ticket for a ride” is something quite new for NASA, and they deserve credit for starting to think this way, but the US military has been operating this way effectively for years.

A new path?

The US represents the best of humanity from all over the world and as such, we have a responsibility to the rest of humanity whether by fate or by divine providence. We as the freest and most capable nation on Earth (while we still have the tools and the talent) have the responsibility to lead in ensuring the survival of the human race.

What if we had a presidential policy to make it the defining purpose of the United States to lead humanity out into space with a new national space exploration agency given an enduring mandate to accomplish three basic missions?

  1. Protect human civilization with the proactive capability to find and deal with threatening NEOs before we’re staring down the metaphorical gun barrel.
  2. Preserve and grow human civilization by facilitating private off-world colonization and settlement, preventing a major disaster on this planet from wiping out human civilization and allowing access for those among us who require a physical frontier in which to thrive and achieve their full potential. There would also be a responsibility to maintain law and order on the high frontier as peacekeepers and first responders, providing the equivalent of a Coast Guard function in cooperation with other spacefaring nations.
  3. Enhance human civilization through the discovery and development of natural resources and conditions only found in space (SBSP, helium-3, antimatter trapped in planetary magnetic fields, foamed alloys, and so on arguably more tangible and justifiable than Velcro, Tang, or memory foam mattresses, and far more valuable with a much greater ROI).

Established as a function of US national security, and explained to the public properly, it would be less subject to the fickle nature of politics. A new, refocused national space exploration agency would reestablish American leadership and exceptionalism. People will understand this and support it, especially because they will know that, either directly or indirectly, they can be a part of it making a good living versus a spectator paying with their tax dollars just to watch. Profitable industries will grow to enable it. Schools will educate and prepare children to perform it. It will give this nation a greater unifying purpose again.

And that will be something worth tweeting or updating your Facebook status. (Part 2 will develop this proposal in more detail.)


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