Posted inOpinion

OpEd — Competition: Driving Force for The Second Space Age

The American space enterprise is undergoing a significant transformation affecting all aspects of our space culture, including the civilian and defense space programs and the commercial space industry. As part of this transformation, I believe America already has transitioned to what I call the “Second Space Age.”

This new space age is not about the Cold War’s heated race to the Moon. Rather, it’s about securing America’s place as the leader in science, exploration, aeronautical and technological development. It’s about moving increasingly routine aspects of spaceflight, both manned and unmanned, to the private sector so that we can maximize government resources in bold new missions for space exploration. The Second Space Age is a comprehensive and synergistic approach to building an innovative, competitive, sustainable and inspirational American space enterprise.

As America enters the Second Space Age, we find that we are not alone in wanting to expand our space horizons beyond low Earth orbit. China, India, Japan, Russia and the European Union are all pursuing strong space programs. While these nations work together on numerous endeavors, they also engage in global economic competition. I think the competition will be stiff and will invigorate our American space enterprise.

While we can certainly shed Cold War paranoia, we cannot afford to ignore real and rigorous competition. If America fails to recognize the challenge we face from emerging space powers such as China and rests on our laurels, then other nations might eclipse us, first technologically, then economically. Acknowledging this paradox is simply a reality. Cooperation and competition are not mutually exclusive in complex international relationships.

In addition to technological and economic benefits, most countries that have invested in an active space program recognize the intrinsic value found in exploring the unknown. America once epitomized this value, however somewhere along the way our space program lost its way.

Thankfully, due to some unflinching introspection and recognition of the fact that Russia, Europe, China, India, Japan and even Venezuela are now willing to expend significant resources on their space programs, we have begun to regain our footing. The president’s Vision for Space Exploration has established a focused, incremental approach towards reaching a number of clearly defined exploratory benchmarks.

The U.S. space program provides an invaluable contribution to the fields of science, mathematics and engineering. Our competitive edge in these areas can be directly attributed to our pre-eminence in the aerospace, defense, medical and other technology-based industries. Anyone doubtful about the seriousness of other countries challenging American prosperity should take note of a recent report by the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, convened by the National Academies.

The report warned that, “Although many people assume the United States will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world. We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost — and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all.”

While recent events have undoubtedly placed a large burden on the federal budget, we cannot and should not allow near-term needs to jeopardize our long-term investments. We must recognize that if we slow down and scale back our space program, America compromises its competitive edge in science and technology. By losing this edge, we harm our ability to remain competitive in a global economy and protect the assets and resources that sustain it.

We do not live in a vacuum and our global status is not a birthright. The Bush administration’s American Competitiveness Initiative and the nation’s resurgent interest in math and science education are attempts to maintain that status.

Sending Americans to the Moon, Mars and beyond is a tremendously innovative enterprise that by its very nature will lead to discovery and new technology. Unlike China’s program, ours is not a government-only affair. America has relied and will continue to rely on entrepreneurs as well as NASA’s current industry partners, who have a long, established history in spaceflight. The true positive impact of such combined enterprises is impossible to calculate, much like it was impossible to calculate the impact of the voyage Columbus took across the Atlantic. America was born of exploration and thrives on competition. I, for one, have confidence in a future shaped by these two qualities.

How we deal with emerging space powers may change over time. But we cannot afford to lose that time and ever hope to catch up. Our best course of action is to determine our own goals and achieve them.

Meanwhile, China is a space, military, technological and business challenge. We do not have to view China as the second coming of the Cold War, but we should not shrink from understanding their purposes, actions and results. Any space faring society that graduates nearly as many engineers in a month as we do in a year, and whose space program is controlled by their military , is a significant challenge — one worthy of long-term planning on our part.

To be clear, I am not trying to start a second Cold War just to help NASA. In fact, I think that Cold War politics were a fickle partner to our initial space program.

In the end, China’s motto may be the relatively modest “Trade Globally, Reign Locally,” but if their aspirations are a little bigger than that, then we ought to be ready by getting to the future first. There is no other single focusing enterprise like space exploration that can bring out the best in America.

Over the course of 2005 the House and Senate thoroughly debated all aspects of NASA’s budget and activities. We welcomed the insights, direction and drive of its new administrator. Despite media portrayals of a gridlocked Congress, we reasoned together, challenged each other and ultimately reached a high level of consensus on what NASA should do and what it should become.

We passed the first NASA authorization bill in five years. We directed NASA to produce strategic plans for science and aeronautics in order to have them on an equal footing with exploration. In this way, when we make the inevitable tradeoffs, we can do so knowing the true cost and benefit of each decision. In the final law (PL109-155) we authorized $17.932 billion for fiscal year 2007. The administration suggested $16.792 in its budget request for 2007. Under its current leadership, I can say that the higher amount represents the optimal level of funding at which our NASA programs could be maximized.

However, given current fiscal realities, a great deal more vocal support from the general public will need to be generated to garner additional resources. Events such as the National Space Symposium and publications such as Space News will be critical to this effort. Just as critical will be for the loyal constituencies of NASA’s core mission directorates to pull together and advocate for NASA as a whole, versus fighting each other for relative slices of the pie.

If I or any one of my partners in creating PL109-155 had written the law alone it would look different. But we wrote it together and it reflects the expressed will of the people we represent and the various stakeholders — explorers, scientists, the aeronautics community, NASA’s traditional industry partners — as well as the hopes and needs of the growing private and personal space community. Now, to fully realize America’s space promise we must robustly fund our space endeavors and truly foster our entrepreneurs. We in America must provide the rules and tools for the Second Space Age, or someone else will.

Rep. Ken Calvert represents the 44th congressional district of California.