Op-ed | Commitment to space exploration should be on the ballot

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With less than a month to go in this election cycle, the public is awash in big issues, COVID and healthcare to national defense and economic recovery.  Lest we forget, an issue also on the ballot is space – with national unity, security, and economic implications in tow. America’s future is intimately tied to our space exploration commitment. Here is why.

At first blush, space may not seem a leading concern, not worth much ink.  But a closer look tells a different story.  Whether voters are concerned about accelerating America’s economic upturn, securing our future, international leadership, military dominance, tamping down China’s threats to health and democracy, or fidelity to the past – space is central.

First, America’s future freedom, security, and leadership on the global stage depends heavily on space.  Witness a host of space-related developments during this administration – from creation of the U.S. Space Force to reinstatement of the National Space Council, expanding threats to terrestrial security from space to increased reliance on “cube satellites,” new emphasis on “responsive space” or fast-reaction missions, plus a need to better track weather and foreign intentions in real time.

On top of this – or in many ways leading these endeavors – is our recommitment to the Moon and Mars, destinations which also promise enormous economic lift, with innovations and spin-off technologies, human advancements in virtually every sector, just as America experienced during the Apollo moon shot effort.  In short, humanity in space, and a commitment to successfully living in space, invariably improves our understanding and enhancement of life on Earth.  Going to the moon will amplify that connection as no investment has since Apollo.

Space is not just a “final frontier,” although it has that distinction.  Human space exploration has proved the progenitor of game-changing, often stunning technologies – from life support, computing, communications, materials science, and medicine to aeronautical engineering, environmental science, weather pattern prediction, and national security preservation.

Notably, 2020 put us right in the middle of the 50th Anniversaries of Apollo missions, which began with Apollo 7 testing and ended with final walks on the moon by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972.  The epic Apollo 11 mission, with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, celebrated 50 last year, and Apollo 17 concluded in December 1972.  From these anniversaries past and upcoming, we should again draw great inspiration – and recommit ourselves to the exceptionalism they represent, both in space and on Earth.

Still, exploration, economic advancement, international leadership, and a symbolic time of recommitment are not the only reasons space is important – and why it is on the ballot.

National security is another big one.  Arguably, the stakes for American national security have never been higher – as China assumes the mantle of first-rank challenger to American space leadership.  While the Soviet Union is now ancient history, China is surging in space.  American space dominance is being challenged on every level, from securing satellites and Earth-dependent civil communications, to threats against space-based direction of military assets, from freedom of navigation in near-Earth orbit to manned space missions to – and permanence on – the moon and Mars.

In short, this is the moment in human history – and in American history – when we will either define the future by an unwavering commitment to space exploration and dominance or lose that race to the Chinese – and other competitors that do not have representative government as their foundation.  In consequence, our national security will either be preserved with resolve, or lost in the fray – somehow rendered less important than other issues.

Whether we like it or not, this is a time of deciding – on whether we will stay true to our legacy of leadership in space, or let that legacy atrophy, with serious future consequences. Leadership in space is fundamental to American defense, security, and global standing – and Americans have a right to know where their elected leaders stand on that issue.

Finally, while the point may seem intangible, hard to digest or recall, a national commitment to exploring space and protecting America’s leadership in that unique, awesome, inviting, and also perilous environment – has been and can be a unifying force. No event in human history so unified Americans and the world like Apollo 11’s manned moon landing.  Americans “came in peace for all mankind” and are on that mission again as a bulwark to those that do not place “peace for all mankind” at the forefront of their ventures.

That is why many of us in the public and private space sector, in states and industries tied to human advancement that flows from space, are so interested in this campaign, from the local to national level.  We know that those who commit to America’s future in space understand both our past and what that commitment will mean for our future, for the economy, national security, and global peace in our future.

Whether one looks at the future through the lens of greater unity, preservation of democratic values, enhanced communication, transportation, science, environmental preservation, or human space exploration – space counts.

Nor is it any mistake that America’s commercial space industry represents an engine for marked growth in high-skill jobs.  As NASA recently reported, America’s space program has been a powerhouse to the US economy. Historically, no investment paid more dividend for the American worker, businesses, science or security than Apollo.

Similarly, NASA programs generated $64.3 billion in economic value in FY19, creating 312,000 jobs nationally, generating seven billion dollars in federal, state, and local taxes.  Moreover, the dynamism of the commercial space industry captures the best of our American economic spirit, entrepreneurship, and problem-solving knack.

As a leader in a key part of this wide, economically powerful sector, let me offer a seldom-spoken truth.  Space matters.  And if you look at this election as mattering, space must be part of your analysis.

Net-net, nearly everything we value has some connection to space, and much of that value relates to our consistent, unswerving commitment to engagement, exploration, and advancement through space.  That is why candidates running for office should make clear their firm commitment to space – and why voters should shine a light on that platform.

Grant Anderson, P.E. is the President & CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation, a recognized leader in life support and thermal control in extreme environments.  He holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Aeronautical & Astronautical Engineering from Stanford University.