Guest Blog: Han Solo or Darth Vader?

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Following the April launches of the Air Force X37B and the DARPA hypersonic glider, I received multiple international media inquires. The questions were pointed. Why the Pentagon secrecy? Was this another step forward in the American march toward the weaponization of space? Won’t these tests trigger an international space arms race? Did these signify that Obama Administration views on weaponization were as zealous as those of the Bush Administration?

The one that momentarily took me aback though was from a BBC reporter — of course while we were live on the air. “What,” he asked with a hint of disparagement in his voice, “do Americans think about these tests? Aren’t they concerned about the militaristic direction America’s space program is taking?” Most Americans, I thought to myself, didn’t even know about the tests, let alone had given 30 seconds of their time to thinking about them. I responded saying something like Americans were fairly used to the military testing new technology and the American public focused more on human spaceflight issues (Okay, I know, we WISH they focused on human spaceflight issues.). The reporter kind of “harrumphed” at that and we moved on.

Subsequently, I made a point of doing an informal source check about my assumptions. Most U.S. media coverage that I could find about the X37B and the hypersonic glider was in trade and specialized outlets focusing on space, and that in the mainstream media was largely short and benignly informational rather than analytic. So I decided to check what the general public knew and thought. I was scheduled to speak to two different citizen groups on space topics the following week, in different parts of the country — both groups generally well informed people but not specifically space enthusiasts. I asked each group how many people had heard of either the X37B or the hypersonic glider. Not more than three or four in each group had. When pressed, those who had said they had heard of either or both knew nothing more than they involved new space technology being tested by the military — and had no thoughts on the implications of the test. I also asked students — and got basically the same response.

This entire episode has reinforced a concern I’ve had for some time — that Americans (including many government officials) blithely still see America as the Han Solo “hero” in space, an image well-deservedly created during the Apollo Program. Meanwhile though, times have changed and much of the rest of the world now hears the eerie voice of Darth Vader when the U.S. speaks about it space ambitions — or conducts tests on dual-use technology that are shrouded in secrecy.

Especially with the human spaceflight program currently in “redesign,” the glorious earlier message of America leading mankind (yes, I know that’s a faux pas) off planet Earth and into the solar system and beyond has been garbled into something far less positive, with Americans unaware, unconcerned or both. Human spaceflight has strategic leadership implications — just ask the Chinese — that affect security. And American assets in space must be protected. How to achieve both within reasonable fiscal means is unquestionably complicated. But the message America seems to be sending globally about its space aspirations is being received as less about strategic leadership than in the past, and far more about militarily dominating the heavens through (potentially) offensive technology — and that message is largely viewed as threatening. Is that really what is intended? Do Americans care? Should they? I think they should, but have no magic answer as to how to make that happen.

Part of the answer, I think, is to have one coherent answer to the question “What are America’s objectives in space and how will they be achieved?” The war in Iraq taught valuable lessons about the importance of strategic communication. Apparently, however, that lesson hasn’t trickled down to the space communities. Part of the problem is that there are multiple space communities — stovepipes — each with their own well-entrenched vested interests and, consequently, their own “messages.” But the stovepipes are another (BIG) problem, for another day. Right now, the problem is how to get Americans to realize, and care, that America has a (space) image problem that impacts its security.