For the past two years, the discussion over the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program has become predictable as many participants revert to the old paradigms that helped sell the program back in the Cold War. The familiar saying would seem to apply: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Yet that is precisely the problem. Paradigms such as the space race and the frontier motif may not make sense for today’s context: The Cold War analogies for human spaceflight indeed are broken.
Back in the 1960s, the public may have thought it unimaginable that the United States and the Soviet Union would engage in anything but competition. Competition certainly helped feed the ambitious human spaceflight effort that led to the Moon landing, leading many to look back with nostalgia at the days of a resource-rich NASA that would not be put at risk of the cutbacks seen today. Weakened murmurs of a space race with China are enlivened by the belief that the space race is a “must” for an ambitious program and that without it NASA’s budget will continue to hover frustratingly close to 1 percent of the federal budget.
A similar case is made for equating human spaceflight with the American westward expansion — the opening of the frontier. Efforts to speak of this endeavor as a natural extension of inherently American qualities of adventurousness, prevalence over hardship and valor, among others, have become heightened once more. This logic suggests that in order to capture the interest of the younger generations, the space program must call upon those very same feelings, assumed to be universal to the American youth.
Yet these assumptions are increasingly being questioned.
Consider first what for some may be an alarming thought: that the space race was not an unavoidable strategy but a choice. This has been made evident by President John F. Kennedy’s efforts to promote U.S.-Soviet space cooperation, an interest he still held up to his assassination. The proposal was shelved by those who followed him, but the point is that it was not unavoidable to compete even then.
Perhaps even more striking are indications that other countries are actively seeking to divorce themselves from that competitive spirit. Statements made about these burgeoning space programs — such as in India and Brazil — often reflect a desire to dispel the space race paradigm altogether, emphasizing instead efforts to promote cooperation. An even stronger case can be made for finally moving beyond the frontier paradigm, which more than a decade ago was already being described by some as ill-fitting the times.
What seems abundantly clear is that context is an often disregarded but crucially important component. Both paradigms successfully “sold” the human spaceflight effort at one point because they struck a chord with the sensibilities of the time. The policy-relevant question is not whether they were the right choice then, but do either of these two paradigms make sense now?
This question is, unfortunately, ignored, and many stakeholders here in the United States seek to reapply these paradigms automatically, despite the fact that they may no longer resonate today. Oblivious, they ignore that their effect may be quite the opposite. At a time when economic and political drivers are forcing new avenues of cooperation, describing the U.S. human spaceflight effort in contentious terms sounds outdated. But the effects may be more than just rhetoric that is not compelling. Also at issue is the fact that the U.S. frontier motif in particular can ever only resonate with an American audience, recalling elements of manifest destiny and expansion. In some cultures, this concept of the opening of the frontier may have no meaning at all or may recall memories of conquest and exploitation. Wishing to reinforce it now would effectively block out participants from other countries both within and outside the United States.
If the stories that help shape and garner support for the space program are to be as successful as these once were, the space community must be able to ask itself where the United States and the world are today, and where space fits into this larger picture. Failing to acknowledge that other activities have moved beyond the Cold War era — and the public along with it — will only give more weight to claims that the human spaceflight effort serves no important purpose today and that we ought to do without it.
Instead of following the inertia of keeping what’s already in the closet, the space community ought to engage in what could be one of the most important discussions determining the future of the human spaceflight program. At the root of this process is facing the possibility that many of these paradigms — the frontier motif in particular — may need to be thrown out completely and replaced. The old storylines are broken — it is time to fix them.
Laura Delgado López joined the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in May as the Earth observations associate. She is a recent graduate of the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and has been a correspondent for SpacePolicyOnline.com since 2009.