The last frontier?
Stellar cluster NGC 2467 in southern constellation of Puppis
Stellar cluster NGC 2467 in southern constellation of Puppis
By Douglas Mackinnon
As most of us who have worked in and around politics for any length of time know, if a certain issue is not an immediate vote-getter or “tangible” for a politician, there is a better than even chance that the issue will be ignored or deposited upon the furthest back-burner.
For many of our elected officials, everyday political calculation comes down to this: “What’s best for my re-election and what’s best for my party?” In that order. With fewer and fewer people in power whose first thought is: “What’s the best decision I can make that will be in the best interests of my constituents?” It’s no wonder that more young people are giving up on politics while their elders abandon the political parties to become Independents.
While the if-it’s-not-tangible-and-I-can’t-game-it-immediately-to-my-benefit test may be great for a politician, it’s often very bad for the country. “Tangible” being political slang for “that federal office building will now be located in my district.”
As for the “non-tangible,” a great example would be our space program. Or to be more accurate, our non-space program. It has never really been relevant for most of our politicians or presidents. The truth is that only one president really thought that space exploration was a tangible national vote-getter.
Whatever his real motivation, on Sept.12, 1962 at Rice University, John F. Kennedy stated in no uncertain terms that in the interests of science, industry and national security, the United States would become the “world’s leading spacefaring nation.” And so we did – for nearly five decades.
Today, that preeminence is nothing more than a fading memory. While President Obama - who as a candidate made it very clear that he valued education over space exploration - may have pushed our human spaceflight program over the cliff, other presidents led it to the edge.
With Florida a key battleground state in the presidential election, the White House and the political appointees at NASA will argue furiously that the president has not walked away from our human space program. They will point to his plans to land astronauts on the asteroids one day. Right. That goal, exactly like George H.W. Bush’s plan in 1989 to send astronauts to Mars, is simply fiction.
I worked in politics for a long time, but I began life as a space geek. I started a scrapbook on the Soviet space program when I was 10 and decades later got to write a book about the 12 men who have walked on the moon. After my time in government, I worked as a consultant for NASA and the Space Shuttle team. In other words, I admit that I have always been a fan of humans in space. Any humans in space.
That said, the humans who are now winning the space race come from the People’s Republic of China. It is clear from their own propaganda that China means to replace us as the “world’s leading spacefaring nation.”
It has been argued in the past that while the United States and other Western nations see the future in terms of months or years, the Chinese see it in terms of decades or even centuries. With that perspective in mind, the Chinese government intends to win not the space race, but the space marathon. They intend to take military, industrial and scientific advantage there.
After the just completed launch and recovery of China’s first female astronaut - Liu Yang, who with two male astronauts, was part of a very successful 13 day mission to dock with a Chinese space station - many in the media covered it as a human-interest story or even a politically correct equal-rights story. Nice, but the completely wrong way to view the Chinese achievement.
Naïve and irresponsible beliefs aside, China’s space program is essentially military. Its every function is designed to carry out a military objective or one that improves the welfare of the state. Nothing else matters to the Chinese leadership.
Toward that end, the Chinese government has been investing a great deal of time and talent in a wide range of anti-satellite weapons and technologies. Aside from direct ascent kinetic kill vehicles (like the one it tested in 2007), the Chinese military space program is also working on laser, jamming, microwave and cyber-weapons.
Why? Because the Chinese leadership - the same leadership that has made hacking our military and commercial computers a priority - understands that no nation on earth is more dependent for its overall survival on its satellites than the United States. Satellites control our military communications, our financial transactions and our day-to-day lives. What if they went dark or were destroyed in orbit?
The Chinese leaders - and others - would certainly say that a military advantage in space is “tangible” and a goal worth attaining. But preeminence is space is about much more than military advantage. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, outlined that argument when he told Popular Science earlier this year:
If China sets up a permanent base on the moon, and tries to explore Mars on a time scale shorter than ours, that will be another space race. I am just certain of it. I am trying to get people to do this without having to view it as an act of war, or an act of a response to an adversary. One way is because of economics; the government could do this, and they could say, “The economic return is the scientists and technologists who invent the new tomorrow.” Space exploration is the carrot that incites people to become scientifically literate. So I view it as an economic development plan.
Maybe it’s time for the president and his Republican opponent to elevate a few issues to the “tangible” list regardless of personal or partisan self-interest. As China launches military satellite after military satellite while declaring its intention to colonize the moon, maybe preeminence in space should be one of them.
During the transition period after he defeated John McCain, Obama contemplated combining the best of the space programs at the Pentagon and NASA to compete with the rapidly accelerating Chinese space program. For whatever reasons, he declined to follow through on that plan when he became president.
The president should dust off those plans. Given the fact that during the height of the war in Iraq, our government was spending nearly a billion dollars a day, I suspect the American people would support spending a month’s worth of that budget every year to ensure that our assets in space and our future on earth are more secure. But to support it, they first need to be convinced of its importance. So do our leaders.
About the author:
Douglas MacKinnon was a press secretary to former Senator Bob Dole. He was also a writer for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and a special assistant for policy and communications in the Defense Department. He is the author, most recently, of a memoir, Rolling Pennies in the Dark.