A New American Space Agenda
It is, of course, that time when some more prone to grandiose visions of what is possible roll out their concepts for a more perfect tomorrow. I, being one of these, shall not hesitate from doing the same.
Recently a well-known blogger asked if we had wasted the last 10 years in space. Depending on the “we” this is a reasonable question.
If the “we” is NASA’s human spaceflight program, then yes, much has been wasted. After all, the agency was handed the chance to begin an amazing quest to return to the Moon and explore Mars, and blew it — applying a 20th century state socialist solution to a 21st century frontier challenge, adopting the hardware but ignoring the lessons of Apollo, feeding friends rather than rewarding results, and reinventing the challenge to fit the wheel rather than reinventing itself to fit the challenge.
However, if the “we” is everyone else working to open space, then the time has been very well spent, be it the Chinese breaking orbit with their own socialist space agenda or the long-gestated birth of the U.S. frontier movement, as a generation of Americans born in the 20th century who were inspired by and learned the lessons of Apollo invested their funds and ingenuity in what is about to become a New Space age. In stark contrast to the managerial mandates of the moribund state program, these New Space firms are harnessing the creativity of a new generation, focusing on success rather than spending, applying the principles of a market-based economy where possible while being willing to pragmatically partner with the state to kick-start their success.
And now the next decade begins. And we have a choice. Either those whose legacy was the creation of the dream and those whose ambition is its realization join together in beginning what may well be the grandest age of human exploration and expansion in history, or the children of Apollo will have to fight their way alone to the gates of the universe while the government space program that inspired and taught them, like some bewildered ancient astronaut, dodders and wanders lost and mumbling into obscurity.
The time for the bold is now, not just on the launch pads of New Space but within the U.S. government space community, be it NASA, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration or the staff rooms of Washington. Innovation and ideas are not purely the property of the private citizens; they abound throughout the hallways, cubicles and laboratories of our government, where bright and excited young minds are routinely beaten into boredom by bureaucratic bosses more interested in appearing to toe the line than to think outside of them.
Although it was government that led the first wave over the barricades of gravity, it is now the people who are charging ahead, and all hands are needed — but each in their proper role, applying their own unique tools and working to the common good of all rather than squatting down and fertilizing their own self-defined tufts of turf.
And so some guidelines. Let’s call it a New American Space Agenda, all puns intended — a phrase tossed around many years ago by some of us in the frontier movement, but now imminently needed and applicable. Below is my condensation of ideas drawn from people much wiser than myself from almost 30 years of engaging in this revolution, where I have seen firsthand what has and has not worked in this insane battle between the people and their government when it comes to space. It may seem one-sided, but frankly it is the government aspect of this endeavor that needs to be forcibly changed, as the market itself as it operates beyond the hallowed halls of Washington, the Pentagon and NASA does a good job of informing and managing the rules of the road for the truly private sector in this field. And so I humbly offer five points of purpose and possibility for change in our national approach to opening space. If I had a hammer that would allow me to nail these to the national airlock now dividing the people and their government, I would do so.
The details of this New American Space Agenda will be made clear over time for those who are open to listening, but the main points are obvious and simply in need of declaration.
The role of government in opening the space frontier is:
1. Declaring the frontier as a place of central national interest where the future ambitions of the people of the nation will be realized in a myriad of ways both tangible and intangible, physical and spiritual, economic, scientific and strategic, and the clear and unambiguous establishment of all necessary fiscal, institutional and regulatory means needed to create, motivate, catalyze and mobilize all the tools, aspects and elements of society, be they directly or indirectly related to the achievement of the goal of creating a free and open frontier in space.
2. Recognizing the frontier as a place where all the grandest aspects of human endeavor are possible and that the advancement of scientific and strategic goals is not simply enhanced but magnified and made purposeful by the employment of the tools of the free enterprise society that allow the government personnel pursuing those goals to do so in the first place.
3. Reaching beyond the realm of private financial investment to explore and support the development of new domains and tech
nologies, always with the goal of passing the fruits of that exploration and development to the people — especially those who will make of them new domains for our people and create new wealth for our nation.
4. Providing a cultural framework that supports creativity, innovation, expansion and the application of new ideas and possibilities by educating and inspiring new generations, creating pathways for the realization of their dreams and ambitions and fostering the free flow of ideas between the government, its people and the people of the world in the interest of all.
5. Rewarding those who risk their lives and fortunes to expand the realm of the nation into the frontier by expanding the matrix of governmental supports and services to them, recognizing their rights and the propriety of their property and ideas, enabling and enhancing their abilities to exercise those rights in regards to other nations, and providing the framework of safety and security needed to transform these newly created domains of human activity and ingenuity into places and practices common and conducive to the conduct of normal life of the people of the nation.
We are the children of an earlier frontier. It defines us, it is one thing we do better than anyone else, and one area we are currently sorely neglecting — at exactly the time when it can not just turn our national economy and malaise around, but if moved from being an oft-sidelined sideshow to one of our central organizing goals could hurl us so far ahead of any others as to assure that our system and way of life will not only inform the future of the planet Earth, but be the model for the future of a new spacefaring human civilization for thousands of years to come.
If followed and applied, these five points could foster a New Space Age, where this incredible nation of nations can apply all it has to offer in terms of creativity and might in the service of not only assuring its own economic and cultural leadership for eons to come, but leading the people of Earth out and beyond the cradle of this tiny world and into the endless frontier and future offered by the universe around us, a worthy goal not just for the next 10 years, but the next 10,000 and more.
Rick Tumlinson is co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.