The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
Bush at NASA HQ
Is the President taking the wrong approach to space by developing a long-term program of exploration rather than promoting the commercialization of space? (credit: White House)

The President’s plan will not work

The recent announcement by the President to commence human exploration of the Moon in preparation for human excursions to Mars by mid-century will not work. It will not work because it is based on the flawed assumption that the government will somehow sustain a thirty-year program of high technology and high risk for reasons not at all clear to the taxpayer. The program, assuming it gets started at all, will suffer annual budget challenges by Congress and the political whims of elected and appointed officials. The program will also be vulnerable to changes in policy due to national security, such as another major terrorist attack on the homeland.

The immense journey

From the perspective of a national imperative, rather than from individual motivations that vary widely, the solar system is a territory to be discovered and eventually exploited by our growing civilization. Explorers and pioneers will discover new celestial and orbital environments, preparing them for more risk-averse settlers interested in exploiting natural resources to sustain stable governments and economies in space. During the 20th century and probably for another few hundred years into the future, explorers and pioneers will venture into space developing and testing new machines, prospecting and evaluating new environments, and establishing new markets. Settlers will come later, establishing permanent communities as industries mature and stability is achieved. This exploration-pioneering-settling process has been followed by many different cultures across millennia.

It will take thousands of years before an integrated spacefaring civilization, composed of diverse societies, is established among the nine planets. It will evolve into being and cannot be forced by decree or directive. The President’s mission today, leveraging the hegemonic power of the United States, is to recognize the immense journey ahead, identify the initial roles for each space sector, and prepare near Earth space for the first wave of migration.

The solar system is a territory to be discovered and eventually exploited by our growing civilization. The President’s mission today is to recognize the immense journey ahead and prepare near Earth space for the first wave of migration.

The migration argument for the human exploration and exploitation of space is nothing new, having been discussed by some anthropologists for years. However, the bold vision of an eventual solar system-wide civilization of humans and machines continues to receive little attention from those making big decisions on our behalf. Even the public would find the vision bordering on the abstract, so far beyond their daily lives as to be easy fodder against an elected official suggesting the approach. To alleviate this outcome, the White House needs to carefully draft a plan designed to link the big picture vision to the practical concerns of today’s Americans. The vision and the plan must also be convincing to Congress, the one holding the purse strings for the government’s role. The vision is only a general direction for the future, intended to be brighter than the direction followed in the past. The plan is what’s necessary to carry out all or part of the vision.

An economic development plan for space

The President’s job, among other things, is to not only provide a vision, but also develop a strategic plan to realize the vision according to the best interests of the American people. Therein lies the crux: Should the plan showcase the government’s capabilities, or the capabilities of the people of the United States? The answer is clearly the latter. One of the government’s legitimate roles, working closely with industry partners, is to enable free markets to gain a foothold and prosper, to seed commercial activity when free enterprise cannot do it on its own. Then, when markets flourish, the government stands back and only provides those services deemed appropriate by the people, like keeping the peace, regulation of certain markets, licensing, and so on. Space is not at all different than Earth when it comes to economic potential. The differences lie in magnitude.

Instead of a vast, unsustainable government-only initiative to send people to the Moon and Mars, the White House should have drafted a space economic development plan. An economic plan includes a broad spectrum of sectors and is likely to be supported by a greater number of Americans because it represents a strategy of investment. A plan dedicated to exploration and scientific discovery (apparently the driving force behind the President’s current plan) is only part of the big picture, and not the motivating force of the majority.

Instead of a vast, unsustainable government-only initiative to send people to the Moon and Mars, the White House should have drafted a space economic development plan.

The President is the only figure capable of drafting a general plan defining the roles and responsibilities of key sectors in the development of space. This does not mean the government will dictate or otherwise mandate action (beyond fiddling with organization charts at NASA), but rather it can provide a framework necessary to consistently guide our nation into space by fostering a partnership between the private sector, the public sector, and the communal sector. The government, for example, must play a key role in opening high-risk, high-cost doors into the realm beyond, and stoke the flames of innovation and entrepreneurship by providing any one or a combination of proven tools for economic growth. For example, NASA should be split in two parts, one dedicated to research and development of aeronautical engineering solutions, while the other dedicated to astronautical challenges. The results can then be used by commercial entities.

Other government agencies must also contribute. The Department of Transportation should continue its role in developing systems designed to facilitate the integration of air and space traffic, streamlining the licensing of commercial space vehicles and spaceports, and promote the commercial launch industry. The Department of Commerce has a role in propping up nascent and emerging space markets, like adventure travel, orbital research facilities, hotels, and other markets likely to sprout up in the coming decades. Later, as more people live and work in space and as assets grow in number, the government’s military space role in will become clearer, and the establishment of police, emergency, and military services will become necessary. Only then will a space force make sense as a separate armed service under the Department of Defense or its future equivalent. Remember, we are still talking about the exploratory-pioneering wave of migration, one that will last a very long time. By the time settlement takes place many generations from now, new governmental and economic systems, as well as different cultural norms, will define the next steps. All we can do is accept the logic that settlement will occur and work toward that general goal. The specifics will become clearer as we go.

While the President’s plan is certainly the wrong way to venture forth into the cosmos, the idea that civil space activities are somehow less important than so many other concerns is ridiculous and un-American. Those who oppose human exploration and exploitation of space should be reminded that expansion, growth, opportunity, and inspiration are critical to the nation’s survival.

The bulk of activity in space will be commercial in nature. In this context, the term commercial is understood to describe a free market (or capitalist) system defined by Adam Smith and subsequently practiced in an ever-evolving form in the United States and other countries. A free market system is as essential to the health of a democratic republic as a constitution drafted to protect the rights of its citizens. A free market system is largely self-regulating and provides the best environment for promotion of opportunity, excellence, personal growth, and freedom of expression. The President, particularly one who is a member of a political party supportive of less government involvement in business, should recognize that commercial activity is the engine of prosperity. It is a self-sustaining force with the necessary amount of motivation, guile, and passion to tame the challenges of interplanetary space. Once again, curiosity and the desire to explore, while powerful motivators for some individuals, are minor motivators on the scale of civilization. A free market system, when supported by a representative democratic style of government, will be the true sustainer of human exploration and exploitation of the Solar System.

America as spearhead to the planets

Several people of influence have suggested that the idea of sending humans in space diverts critical funds and attention away from Earthly concerns. While the President’s plan is certainly the wrong way to venture forth into the cosmos, the idea that civil space activities are somehow less important than so many other concerns is ridiculous and un-American. Those who oppose human exploration and exploitation of space should be reminded that expansion, growth, opportunity, and inspiration are critical to the nation’s survival. One can also gain considerable leverage by pointing out the stupendous cost of an ineffectual welfare system as compared to NASA’s $15 billion annual budget. We should consider that a $400 million rover on Mars can inspire thousands of children all around the world to pursue newly found passions leading to productivity down the road, while I continue by force of law to submit large sums of my income to a bottomless pit called Social Security, among other things.

Of course we have critical issues to contend with here on Earth. Children above all are not receiving a tenth as much attention as they should in this country. A great nation, though, can also reach into space to lay the foundation for our descendents and ensure our prosperity and way of life. The United States, along with friends and allies, has a singular opportunity to be among the founders of a new spacefaring civilization. Hegemony never lasts forever, and we should not neglect the potential of such a position, nor should we abuse it.

The solar system belongs to the human race because we can make a universal, unchallenged declaration to such a claim. We can begin setting out for the planets today rather than someday, or never. Great nations never choose the latter, and waiting until the moment feels right is to invite the potential that the moment will never come. The United States is a great nation, and true Americans seize the moment.


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