Engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center are evaluating how crews inside a mockup of the Orion spacecraft interact with the rotational hand controller and cursor control device while inside their Modified Advanced Crew Escape spacesuits. Credit: NASA

There is growing awareness among the public, industry and policymakers of the value and importance of U.S. leadership in space exploration. Congressional support is broadening for Orion, SLS, the James Webb Space Telescope, and for the transition of human exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Public interest in planetary science missions such as the New Horizons Pluto flyby and early planning for a mission to Europa is also strong. Private investment and entrepreneurial activity in space is increasing. Finally, space-related themes — present in advertising and marketing in the United States since Apollo — are enjoying a resurgence, with images and references appearing in campaigns ranging from the Make-A-Wish Foundation to music videos to the signature episode of a popular ad campaign for beer. All of these suggest a rising tide of interest in space exploration beyond traditional boundaries.

Leadership in space pays dividends to a broad array of stakeholders, not the least of which is the American taxpayer. The benefits of a national space program are well known and include gains in human knowledge, scientific discovery, technical innovation, and national aspiration and pride. In the case of human spaceflight, some of the most valuable benefits are strategic. The geopolitical benefits of U.S. leadership in space include global commerce, peaceful technical exchange among nations, and the enhancement of national security now and in the future. Here, too, participation is growing, with more than 80 nations engaged through the International Space Station program. International collaboration in human space exploration reinforces mutual interests and also facilitates government-to-government activities outside of the space arena.

Other benefits of the space program relate directly to commerce. Current space policy and law make the emergence of a commercial space sector an important objective of our national space program. However, there is no commercial approach to human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit that is funded solely by private investment. These systems and architectures rely on direct or indirect government funding. Therefore, the occasional calls to narrow or redirect the focus of our national program to the commercial development of space must be evaluated against all of the factors just noted, as well as other considerations. Abdication of the government’s direct role in space exploration is not in the best interest of the United States.

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. Credit: NASA
Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. Credit: NASA

NASA’s plans for deep space rest on utilization of a wide range of capabilities under development, both now and in the future. This will be necessary to achieve the most challenging of goals — expansion of human presence into the solar system on a permanent basis. This decades-long endeavor will include innovations and technologies that we cannot currently foresee but can and should “harvest” as we engage in long-term exploration and discovery. Maintaining a government-owned capability ensures continuation of such a bold endeavor over time. It insulates long-term national interests such as those described above from the vagaries of shorter-term economic cycles and shifting business plans and priorities. Importantly, it also ensures that the information and knowledge gained from space exploration are widely available to drive the innovation that makes certain our future prosperity and competitiveness.

Some of the direct beneficiaries of our national space program include some of the same companies involved in commercial space, as well as entrepreneurs and businesses that have “retooled” to take up the challenge of building systems such as Orion and SLS that will take humans farther into space than ever before. In many cases these companies are applying existing technologies and processes in new ways, as well as breaking new ground in technology and manufacturing. Consistency of purpose in the national space program provides stability for this important sector of the economy.

Industry itself can assist in the effort to address these concerns. Last year the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration was “rebooted” to support NASA’s direction to explore deep space. Its mission is to educate and inform the public and policymakers about the benefits and dividends paid by national initiatives in human space exploration and space science, and to help ensure the U.S. remains a leader in space. We recognize that there is a space exploration story of global and potentially epic proportions already in progress. The sheer excitement, audacity and challenge to our collective imagination about what we can do “out there” led 18,000 respondents to apply for astronaut candidacy, more than double NASA’s previous record. International participation in space exploration is spreading, with more countries participating now than at any time in history.

Meanwhile, in the halls of Congress, bipartisan letters are circulating in support of NASA’s Orion, SLS and Ground Systems programs. These letters have been signed by dozens of members from both parties, even those from states without NASA presence and districts with little or no aerospace heritage. This groundswell, too, goes well beyond traditional boundaries.

As we approach the mid-point in the national election cycle, it is reassuring to see that the country’s direction in space exploration is on a sure footing, with a wide range of interests and benefits. Now is the time to commit to staying the course securing and extending our nation’s space exploration capabilities into the future.

Mary Lynne Dittmar is the executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, a national organization of space industry businesses and advocacy groups focused on ensuring the United States remains a leader in space, science and technology.

Mary Lynne Dittmar is executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...