It’s been a couple of weeks since the NASA budget came out and fingers are still pointing as to who screwed up where, whose program ate what budget and why, and why is mine being singled out while yours is being kept alive? Meanwhile, in partial answer to that question, congressional staffers and their bosses are madly walking the halls, working to get this or that “must have for our national future in space” local jobs program funded or refunded, and the lobbyists are out in full force, fanning out to make sure their bosses make good money off our dreams.
Those convinced the administration of President Barack Obama is killing the space program as they knew it gather around opposition candidates in hopes they will get back into power, as NASA centers and directors keep their old Constellation, Ares and Orion brochures out and on display, awaiting the good ol’ days when the idea of circumnavigating the Moon a la Apollo 8 some 50 years after it was done the first time was sufficient to keep the job force growing and cash flowing.
Meanwhile, the president still hasn’t laid out a compelling vision or rationale for the changes he made, corrected his mistake of dissing the Moon, set a compelling organizing goal around which the troops from all sides can rally or put a strong general in place to lead the charge. I’m sorry, but a possible visitation of an asteroid sometime in the future for this or that available reason just isn’t good enough.
And wrapping either approach in the illusion that it might on some safely distant day lead to what will inevitably be another set of abandoned flags and footprints on Mars is disingenuous, pathetically uninspiring and not a worthy challenge to a great nation such as ours.
America is at a moment of national self-doubt and transition, facing a possible shift in world leadership and a technological and economic race of global proportions, in some cases led by those who do not share our belief in freedom and liberty. Wimpy won’t do.
Sound familiar? It was the same in 1962. Faced with the rise of the Soviet Union as a world power, a military, scientific and industrial base in need of a positive focus, a generation of children being bombarded by images of fear through the new tech of TV, a president who recognized that a bold initiative, a clear mission within challenging parameters, reachable yet hard, with clear milestones and an unambiguous and symbolically powerful goal, stepped up and dared us to step outward beyond what was safe and do the unimaginable.
We are there again. The threats and problems we face today are the same. And although the tools, the team and the technologies today are different, they not only can achieve the same level of symbolic victory but can surpass it, as we rightly ought to be able to do some 50 years later.
We need someone to step up again, point to the reality of what the people of this nation can do and aim us, challenge us, to do something beyond our reach, do it right and do it faster than we think we can. To do something that acknowledges and builds on our national strengths, captures the spirit of the age and draws together the widest possible constituency of Americans to take on a challenge that is hard yet symbolic, tough yet achievable, and will inspire new generations to emulate a new wave of heroes.
The team we have this time is broader than the last.
We have a space agency desperately in need of purpose, whose employees and capabilities have been wasted for decades on make-work projects and dead-end PowerPoint pioneering placebos designed to do nothing more than keep the billing high. An agency that if challenged and given clear orders and the right job as the leading edge of a new wave of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit could and would rise to the heights of its capabilities.
We have an industrial base — one that if made to take orders rather than being allowed in the vacuum of leadership to create them, if enabled by the elimination of cost-plus contracting to produce and achieve rather than waste and receive, could make something worth the cost rather than making work that costs us our dreams. An industry that if overseen by customers and managers more interested in opening an airlock to space than passing through a rotating door to a comfortable job lobbying for more could produce something worth paying for.
And we have a new generation, raised on the ability to move quickly, communicate instantly, develop, try and discard that which does not work while in the same moment creating that which does. A generation raised on the technologies of the first conquest of space and yet clean of the taint of its subsequent failure to hold the ground it had achieved. A generation that is ready, willing and able to step up and step out, already building its own rocketships, staffed by eager new minds who almost believe it a given they will be living in space in their lifetimes.
It is time to bring these cultures together. By reigniting the exploration role of our government Lewises and Clarks within and enabled by the infrastructure and economic drive of commercial space and the people themselves, this nation can rise to heights unimaginable. Together we can achieve something of proportions that will not just be the stuff of someday stories, but the reality of a new realm of human civilization.
In this moment of what may appear to be lost direction, we must make the decision that any direction we go is based on a shared goal, a shared set of values and a shared vision of the desired outcome. When it comes to human spaceflight, that shared goal must be settlement.
It is time to declare that the goal of the United States in space is the settlement of the solar system, from low Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars.
It is time for all of us, in all of the sectors, segments and societies that make up this grand movement, to agree on this one core and simple goal — the purpose of human space exploration is human space development and settlement. Not just exploration but including exploration, not just technology development but including development, not just jobs but including and creating innumerable jobs, not just national prestige but advancing the ideals of this great nation and making it clear to all that the high ground belongs to the free — because we will be living there.
My words are strong and my rhetoric perhaps over the top for some. But the reality is that this can be done. This is the moment for it to be done. And clear and simple plans already exist to show how it must be done.
So let’s do it.
Luna 2020. Phobos 2025. Mars 2030.
Permanence all the way and forever.
This time we don’t go to play.
This time we go all the way.
This time we go to stay.
Rick Tumlinson is an entrepreneur, writer and consultant in the space industry.