A friend of mine from work forwarded me an editorial from conservative writer Charles Krauthammer that went up a couple of days ago. It's an article that is both misinformed and contradictory between a number of different points, attacking the Obama administration by likening the recent cancellation of the Constellation program to shutting the United States out of space for good. Nothing could be further from the truth in this when it comes to the future of the American Space industry.
It is noted that Russia will hold a monopoly on spaceflight for the first couple of years following the shutdown of the space shuttle. True, but as a recent Wall Street Journal editorial by Peter Diamandis (one of the founders of the X-Prize) notes, this will come to significantly lower costs for the US, as the operational cost will be borne by the Russians, as the United States sends up hardware and personnel. Considering that the US currently spends billions on going to space with the shuttle, it's a good move for a democratic administration trying to cut spending. Cooperation with the former Soviet Union makes sense, especially as we're not enemies with the nation anymore, but competitors, as we both have mutually accessible goals with the International Space Station. Indeed, space technology, while in the hands of the Americans, has long been a way of surpassing diplomatic closed doors: the Apollo 11 astronauts toured Russia, while the Apollo/Soyuz test project helped to bring the two countries closer together over time.
In the meantime, getting to space is not too expensive for private industries: it's been done before, and a number of other companies are well on their way. Last year, SpaceX became the first company to launch and deploy a satellite into space, and over the past year, has been testing their own equipment on launches - one of the recent shuttle launches contained a new navigational unit, designed for SpaceX's proprietary technology, as well as other instruments so that their own ships would be able to locate and lock onto the International Space Station. NASA has already awarded a contract to this company, starting in 2010, to run through 2012, for launch capabilities, most likely to get supplies and materials up into orbit with their Falcon 9 rocket. A manned spacecraft, the Dragon, is to be used with the Falcon 9, and will no doubt be playing a large role in the near future. In this regard, Krauthammer is misinformed as to the capabilities of the US Space Industry.
This is one of the more puzzling elements of the space industry, especially when it comes to the political table. Numerous presidents, from Kennedy to Regan to Nixon to Bush have all played the space card, often suggesting lofty goals for what the United States can achieve. In a way, the ability to reach space is a marker for the progress of the technology and science, and the United States has proven, and continued to prove its resilience and dedication to these goals. However, in how these goals are carried out is telling, especially when one considers the background motivations behind why these men have suggested that we go to space. President Kennedy, in his famous Rice Stadium speech on May 25th, 1961, came just after the April failure of an invasion of Cuba. Faced with a desire to help scrub the administration's image clean, Kennedy focused on some of his campaign priorities, including the space gap issue, and announced that the United States would go to the moon - a move that wasn't supported by everyone in his administration, and even the President himself had his doubts about it. The recent Constellation program was announced by President George W. Bush during a period of sagging rating from a war that was going sour, suggesting that there was much of the same rational going on behind the scenes. Space is an inspirational goal, and none of the presidents really deserve any criticism for their intentions, but they do for their own personal lack of support. Constellation was most likely doable, but at enormous cost that just doesn't make sense in the current economic climate.
Indeed, when it comes to conservative support, the condemnation of the cancellation of Constellation runs contrary to both parties internal philosophies: conservatives, who seek to reduce the federal budget, taxes and overall governmental footprint, are eager to continue this expensive and limited program, while it is the liberals, who advocate larger government spending and influence who are asking for the program to be cut away. Space has a very strange influence on governmental politics, because of the moral and popular boost that only going to the moon can reveal. In this instance, cancelling one program for another one that has the potential to better cement America's hold on space seems like the better option, especially if the incentives for private business enterprises are there as well, another puzzling aspect of Krauthammer's argument, which likewise runs counter to typical conservative thinking: there is something that American ingenuity and hard work can't accomplish? I honestly find this incredibly difficult to believe, and think that an American space industry will help bring the US to orbit and keep us there, long-term.
Diamondis's article points out some very good reasons to go to space: asteroids contain a wealth of minerals and metals that can be used here at home, as well as on the Moon. The space program has long been argued as being a great public relations program, but one without practical gain. A space program and industry that pays for itself is the only way forward for anyone to remain in space, and the United States needs to continue that momentum by building up an industry and a space program that can work with it in the future. Other countries are still reasonably far behind, but while there is no reason to allow them to catch up, the United States needs to be intelligent about its decisions in how it remains in the lead.
Finally, the argument that Mars is too far away makes sense to a limited extent, but if going into space is only for limited goals, then what is the point of the United States remaining in orbit if there is little payback for our efforts? The Space Shuttle was a remarkable achievement in its time, and there will be others in the future: humanity will make its way to Mars, if anything because it is in our nature to do so: we are a curious people, and will always be looking ahead to the next challenge to overcome, and the next place where we can stick our feet.