Spacelift Washington: Sputnik +45 = A New Strategic Framework for Space

Spacelift Washington
Spacelift Washington Archive
(WASHINGTON) The words were written centuries ago, but as a cautionary tale of political maneuver it could have just as well been written now. The brief scene was set, not in a recent edition of Space Policy but Shakespeare, of all places.

In Part I of Henry IV, the Bard’s parable of political intrigue and war two sorcerers are having a chat. Today they'd be called old pols - which in fact is what they were. The less-politically experienced man was named Owen Glendower. His ancient, and world-weary, er shall we say colleague, was named Hotspur. The subject of their chat was power. Who had it. Who thought he had it. And what good it was unless one used it.

Peering into a caldron's reflection, Glendower boasts "I can call spirits from the vasty deep!" What power! What authority over mortals! What hubris.

But the wizened Hotspur looks at him wearily. That's a wrong answer, wrong question.

"So can I, so can any man," Hotspur tells him, not-so-gently. "But will they come when you do call for them?"

Such is the case today, and has been for years, in pursuit of new space goals, a new space exploration spirit of leadership for America. The nation's pocketbook fuels the vast majority of all space spending done by all of the great space powers combined.

As GWU Professor John Logsdon has written, some 85 percent of global space spending is done here in the U.S. However, despite repeated calls and proposals for advanced space objectives, none have stood the political test that reality requires. We have lots of pieces and programs.

Yet, as Hotspur would say if he were around today, it takes more than calling to summon the spirit of change so as to make a coherent space policy.

Such as?

A combination of national need, as defined by urgency, economic stability and security considerations. All fortified with national will. In other words, unique but substantial circumstances. Much like the environment we face today.

We note another anniversary of a historic space event this Friday: the 45th anniversary of the dawn of the Space Age itself. As we do, here are some thoughts as to why space activities should be the subject of a renewed national emphasis - the kind of emphasis that only one person in the vast federal bureaucracy can place-and that being the central occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

1. The central organizing principle of the nation's space agenda should be the exploration as well as the exploitation of space. That means sending human beings in spaceships to all of the interesting places in the Solar System. And, in the process, crafting a suite of technologies and capabilities that can be exploited for commercial and military purposes. Yes, it is about destinations. But equally important is the journey to get there.


Because space activities are one of a small set of national (read Federal) efforts whose conduct feeds a very large segment of the nation's developmental needs. The technologies created by space programs sustain the nation's economic growth, feed into education and thus help sustain the health and evolution of academic institutions and all that they touch, have secondary and dual-use characteristics beyond the space industry itself, derive scientific and engineering advancement, and form a major element of national security by its uses in a variety of military applications. Very few programs have such wide-ranging impact upon the nation's growth and strength, as do those involving space technology.

For all of these reasons, a president would be well served to make space exploration and exploitation a national priority. Not only going back to the Moon, or sending humans to Mars, or funding the technology for future generations of space launch vehicles and satellites. But all of these goals. Because a healthy space program is vital to the national interest of the United States. Period. End of justification.

2. The central purpose of a strong space program should be to strengthen U.S. industry and advance its technology. A primary emphasis of space as an element of foreign policy will not serve to sustain any major space initiative for long. The U.S. space program should be about the business of U.S. interests first. International interests second. One would think that this would be obvious.

3. Partnering with other countries simply as a way to avoid spending the money to achieve a space goal makes for a poor rationale for all of the nations involved. Recently, the U.S. has become, from the perspective of its partners, a poor partner in international space projects. Such a view usually ignores the multiple examples of poor performance by Russia in the space station program during the period from 1993 to around 1998.

Partnering with other nations so as to exploit their own technologies - when similar capabilities exist here at home - only serves to drive up the cost of future space projects in the U.S, since American industry atrophies as a result of utilizing foreign technology. America should partner with its allies only when such arrangements benefit both partners. Partnering simply for the sake of internationalism is not enough. Nor is it prudent.

4. National space capabilities should be viewed from a national perspective, instead of viewing them from within the confines of individual bureaucracies such as NASA or the DoD. Reducing the cost and complexity of access to space should not merely reside within NASA, but rather, should truly be multi-agency in scope. This is necessary since more than one federal agency will eventually make use of the innovation machine such an effort would ultimately create. In addition, all of the organizations that would utilize such a system should help pay the research pricetag to bring the technologies forward.

5. Commercialization should not become an excuse for the federal government to avoid its traditional role as funding source for advanced research and development for space. Prizes, competitions, commercial programs and services are all essential parts of the space community. But none are going to have the deep pockets to fund these technologies alone. If they could do so, we'd be flying grandma into space on a regular basis by now.

6. The federal government should be about the business of developing new space systems, not operating them. Future access to space may lie in the form of either a fully reusable launcher, or a spaceplane/booster combination in the interim. If this is the case, then once such technologies have moved from the prototype stage into a configuration that can be fielded, a commercial operational solution offers the best and quickest route to low cost and high safety of flight.

7. Call it industrial policy if you wish, it simply isn't in the national security interest of the United States in a time of war to sustain continued contraction of the aerospace industrial base. If we lose additional capabilities in space launch services, satellite manufacturing, or communications technology it will weaken U.S. interests in many other fields. Therefore, government, academia and industry should be exploring ways to strengthen the aerospace industry and its workforce retention needs. Unless we address this as a national issue, beyond its sole value as space capabilities, we will continue to hemorrhage this industrial workforce and the skills and knowledge they contain.

You don't agree? Then perhaps you can explain why we urge students to stay in graduate school and rack up staggering student loan debt year after year, but can't seem to figure out how to sustain the very industry that would employ them when they get out of college – an industry that could come to see paying to further these student's education as a prudent investment – thus offering swift influx of new knowledge to the way they do business.

8. In a time of war, the existing space launch ranges should remain under the care and control of the U.S. military. This means that modernization solutions should be the responsibility of the Department of Defense. This also implies a long-range modernization plan for Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Bases.

Are you concerned about the militarization of space? Well, it happened way back in 1967 when the Soviets orbited the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). In other words, you're nearly 30 years too late. Get over it.

9. New spaceports, on the other hand, should be viewed as adjuncts of airports; that is, primarily a state-and-locality driven facility. While the federal government can assist with setting standards for spaceports, let the local environment shape their development and growth.

10. If you believe in space tourism, or space passenger services, then you should personally support the effort to actually build a spacecraft that a passenger can routinely fly in. Millionaires on missiles is nice, mainly for the missile maker. A space tourism industry it isn't. Such an industry will only be feasible when the cost of launch is drastically reduced while the safety vastly increases. All of the space tourists that have either flown on the Soyuz or who are seeking to do so are true space pioneers. Their courage should be honored by a sustained effort to bring forward a true passenger-carrying space vehicle. Any effort to regulate the future space tourism sector should be done with great restraint, lest it strangle that emerging industry.

None of these ideas are exactly new. Nor is this isn't a comprehensive list. I'll have more such ideas as time passes. The central theme, of course, is that space activities have a vital place in the national agenda, a place that grows more crucial as the years pass.

For too long many have sought to create either another Apollo-style single goal, or somehow hoped to wish away space leadership by placing its emphasis on the back of industry, as if shareholder value was the same as the national interest.

For far too long, we have been tiptoeing around, trying to justify space leadership for other than space reasons. The true exploration of space creates so much wealth and intellectual assets across so many fields of endeavor it needs no additional justification. One could just as well ask-why, as a nation, should we lead in anything?

If we want to re-create the American leadership in space activities, one that was the product of the Sputnik shock that came on Friday October 4, 1957, we can do so. All it will take is commitment and money. Although it is not politically correct to say it, the money we have. All of this, over time, will cost about the same as two aircraft carriers and a few nuclear submarines.

Such is the need for a new spirit of leadership in space, defined by a national commitment of resources and political capital. Spending money for space efforts will require a leadership that acknowledges what really should be obvious. No commission, study, hearing, summit or convention is a substitute for that. Although all such things can help clarify the debate and spotlight the urgency for action.

After all, one can call spirits, you know.

But it's still true that getting them to show up is yet another thing.

SPACELIFT WASHINGTON © 2002 by Frank Sietzen, Jr. The opinions expressed in this column are the author's own, and are not associated with or affiliated with any other organization or group.

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