Liberty and Space Leadership


The Apollo 11 40th anniversary celebrations and the confirmation of Charles Bolton as the new NASA administrator has not removed the morale-bending cloud of uncertainty created by the inaction of the current administration relative to space policy. The lack of initiative by President Barack Obama indicates that he does not understand the role space plays in the future of the United States and of liberty.

Between 2005 and 2008, the NASA Advisory Council continuously reviewed all aspects of the Constellation Program under then-President George W. Bush. The Council’s conclusion can be summarized as follows: Constellation constitutes an extremely important, technically well-conceived, highly challenging, and grossly underfunded effort to return Americans to deep space, including eventual flights to Mars.

By lack of congressional and Bush administration action, however, Constellation not only never received the administration’s promised funding but was required:

1) to continue the construction of the international space station (ISS), which was badly underbudgeted by the NASA administrator, the Office of Management and Budget, and ultimately the Congress, prior to Mike Griffin’s tenure at NASA;

2) to accommodate numerous major overruns in the Science programs, which are largely protected from major revision or cancellation by congressional interests;

3) to manage the agency without hire and fire authority, which is particularly devastating to the essential hiring of young engineers; and

4) to eat the redirection and inflation-related costs of several Continuing Resolutions.

Whatever course is set by the new administration, these four fundamental restrictions to success must be eliminated or the risk of program failure and of loss of future missions and crews will reach unacceptable levels.

In spite of these difficulties, history tells us that an aggressive program to return Americans to deep space, initially the Moon and then to Mars, must form an essential component of national policy. Americans would find it unacceptable, as well as devastating to human liberty, if we abandon leadership in deep space to the Chinese, Europe or any other nation or group of nations. Potentially equally devastating would be loss of access to the energy resources of the Moon as fossil fuels diminish on Earth. In the harsh light of history, it is frightening to contemplate the long-term, totally adverse consequences to the standing of the United States in modern civilization of a decision to abandon deep space.

What, then, should be the focus of national space policy in order to maintain leadership in deep space? Some propose that we concentrate only on Mars. Without the experience of returning to the Moon, however, we will not have the engineering or physiological insight for many decades to either fly to Mars or land there. Others suggest going to an asteroid. As important as asteroid diversion from a collision with the Earth someday may be, just going there is hardly a stimulating policy initiative, and it is a capability that comes automatically with a return to the Moon.

Returning to the Moon and to deep space constitutes the right course for the United States. Human exploration of space embodies basic instincts — the exercise of freedom, betterment of one’s conditions and curiosity about nature. These instincts have been manifested in desires for new homelands, trade and knowledge. For Americans particularly, such instincts lie at the very core of our unique and special society of immigrants.

Over the last 150,000 years or more, human exploration of Earth has yielded new homes, livelihoods, know how and resources as well as improved standards of living and increased family security. In historical times, governments have directly and indirectly played a role in encouraging exploration efforts. Private groups and individuals often have taken additional initiatives to explore newly discovered or newly accessible lands and seas. Based on their specific historical experience, Americans can expect that the benefits sought and won in the past also will flow from their return to the Moon, future exploration of Mars and the long reach beyond. To realize such benefits, however, Americans must continue as the leader of human activities in space.

With a permanent resumption of the exploration of deep space, one thing is certain: Our efforts will be comparable to those of our ancestors as they migrated out of Africa and into a global habitat. Further, a permanent human presence away from Earth provides another opportunity for the expansion of free institutions, with all their attendant rewards, as humans face new situations and new individual and societal challenges.

The competitve international venue remains at the Moon. Returning there now meets the requirements for a U.S. space policy that maintains deep space leadership, as well as providing major new scientific returns and opportunities. Properly conceived and implemented, however, returning to the Moon prepares the way for a new generation to go to Mars.

The current Constellation Program contains most of the technical elements necessary to implement a policy of deep space leadership, particularly development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Ares 5. In addition, Constellation includes a large upper stage for transfer to the Moon and other destinations, two well-conceived spacecraft for transport and landing of crews on the lunar surface, strong concepts for exploration and lunar surface systems, and enthusiastic engineers and managers to make it happen if adequately supported. The one major missing component of a coherent and sustaining architecture may be a well-developed concept for in-space refueling of spacecraft and upper rocket stages. The experience base for developing in-space refueling capabilities clearly exists based on a variety of past activities, including ISS construction.

Again, if we abandon leadership in deep space to any other nation or group of nations, particularly a non-democratic regime, the ability for the United States and its allies to protect themselves and liberty for the world will be at great risk and potentially impossible. To others would accrue the benefits — psychological, political, economic and scientific — that the United States harvested as a consequence of Apollo’s success 40 years ago. This lesson has not been lost on our ideological and economic competitors.

American leadership absent from space? Is this the future we wish for our progeny?

Harrison H. Schmitt, a former U.S. senator and NASA astronaut who flew on the Apollo 17 mission, chaired the NASA Advisory Council from 2005-2008. He currently is an aerospace consultant and adviser, and author of “Return to the Moon.”