Laurel wrote a great post yesterday morning questioning the Obama Administration’s dedication, or lack thereof, to NASA’s space program. While Laurel’s views are a little more critical than my own in some areas, she brings up a handful of interesting points. The first of which is whether the Obama Administration is opposed to exploring the next frontier of space, whatever that frontier may be, or whether it is simply apathetic. I believe it is closer to the latter. While the Obama Administration has not done anything greatly inspiring to promote space exploration, it has taken a few very substantial steps. The most notable of these is the President’s signal that he will support funding for the International Space Station (ISS) to keep it operational through 2020, rather than through 2015. However, Obama has also plans to shut down the Constellation Program that was intended to succeed the Shuttle Program, meaning that American astronauts will need to hitch rides into space. Former Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag declared, “We are proposing canceling the program, not delaying it,” in a February 2010 interview with The New York Times. At 11:57 AM EST today, Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to land for the last time after 39 missions, 365 days in space, and more than 145 million miles traveled, according to NASA (watch it streamed live).
The ISS is very important to international cooperation. It is offers an opportunity for the world’s great scientific powers, led by the United States, to research critical projects. The ISS and the astronauts working in it are helping to discover the tools that will be used in the efforts to reach the next frontier, be it going back to the Moon, going to Mars, going to Jupiter’s moon Europa, or going elsewhere. The ISS plays a role similar to that of economic interdependence in the strategic diplomacy of the United States. It provides other world powers a reason to work with us, and in many cases follow our lead. President Obama’s extension of support for the ISS is no small move and is laudable.
However, the biggest difference between the international cooperation at the ISS and the bipolar competition during the Space Race is that one encouraged diplomacy and the other encouraged patriotism. The Space Race made Americans proud to be Americans. We made it to the Moon first; we were the best. NASA of the mid-twentieth century inspired young engineers and scientists to serve their country and galvanized the American nation in support of a single cause. While very important, support for the ISS does not foster patriotism or scientific ingenuity, at least not to a comparable extent.
In a recent TIME piece entitled, “How to Restore the American Dream,” Fareed Zakaria writes about the potential decline of America and American exceptionalism. He writes that conservatives want to cut spending to reduce the deficit and liberals want to increase investments to stimulate the economy. Zakaria argues that this ideological purity does not serve the public interest. He asserts that we need to make smart cuts and smart investments, pulling funds from unnecessary places and investing in the right areas (like Eisenhower with the interstate highway systems and Kennedy with the space program). I think it is, or is almost, time to invest significant funds in NASA’s space exploration program once again. NASA not only has a unique ability to inspire Americans, but also presents opportunities to explore outer space and invent applications that benefit us, here on Earth.
President Obama has thought strategically about his administration’s NASA investments. It soon will be time for him to reconsider his goals and reinvigorate the space program. The United States is capable of anything, but we need to try to go to the Moon, or Mars, or wherever, in order to get there.
Editor’s Note (3/29): A manned mission to an asteroid by 2025 and, possibly, a manned orbit of Mars by 2040 are interesting and potentially very significant goals. AOL News reports on it here.