Lowering Our Sights

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There was always going to be a gap between the end of the Shuttle program and beginning of the Constellation program, but at least under the Bush plan the gap had a defined endpoint, somewhere around 2014-15. “To be without carriage to low-earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future,” as the astronaut trio puts it, “destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature” and sends America on “a long downhill slide to mediocrity.”

Indeed, we already live in an era when America is perceived as in decline. In a realm beyond yet related to national security, surrendering the ability to carry astronauts into space promises to be another blow to America’s prestige. We’ve been here before. Almost six years elapsed between the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975 and America’s next manned space mission, the maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Columbia. That period ominously coincided with what is generally considered the nadir of America’s post-World War II power.

To be sure, the Pentagon will continue to be active in space after the Shuttle is retired. In fact, it is estimated that space programs related to national security receive two times the funding NASA receives. Some of those resources are supporting the secret X-37B space plane, an unmanned vehicle which enters orbit courtesy of an Atlas V rocket, can loiter in space for up to 270 days, and can fly 500 nautical miles above the earth. An X-37 returned from a secret mission in late 2010.

But it’s difficult to imagine that the U.S. will be able to maintain its space edge relying on an experimental space plane, under-strength commercial rockets and an undependable Russia. In this regard, it pays to recall that many Shuttle missions were strictly military missions, some of them highly classified.

Worse, countries like China will not stand still while America regroups.

According to the Defense Department, “China is developing a multi-dimensional program to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by its potential adversaries.” And it’s developing what the Pentagon calls “counter-space programs” rapidly. In 2007, Beijing tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile, demonstrating its ability to attack satellites in low-earth orbit. According to the Pentagon, Beijing is “developing other technologies and concepts for kinetic (hit-to-kill) weapons and directed-energy weapons for ASAT missions.” A 2008 Pentagon report quotes Chinese military planners as envisioning a “space shock and awe strike…[to] shake the structure of the opponent’s operational system of organization and…create huge psychological impact on the opponent’s policymakers.” The Pentagon noted in 2009  that Chinese military “writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance/observation and communications satellites.’”

Direct and indirect challenges to U.S. space supremacy are already happening. According to General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Intentional interference with space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation and communication satellites, while not routine, now occurs with some regularity.”

All of this may serve as an argument for shifting space operations, including manned spaceflight, to the U.S. military. Yet such a transformation is many years away for many reasons: Pentagon turf battles, Obama’s qualms about the military use of space, lack of support in Congress and lack of will in general.

It’s a president’s responsibility to set priorities, and space is simply not a priority for this president. But don’t take my work for it. As AP reported in 2009, Obama nominated “nearly 200 officials, including an undersecretary of agriculture for rural development, an assistant labor secretary for veterans employment and training, and actor Kal Penn as a White House liaison” before getting around to naming Charles Bolden as NASA administrator.

Governing is about making choices. When it comes to the U.S. space program this president has made the wrong choices.

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.

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  • Henry Rearden

    This article is nothing but rubbish. The only way forward for manned spaceflight is the commercial sector. When has the US Govt ever done anything even close to within budget? With no competition imposed on it NASA has been doing little more than sit on its hands for the past 3 decades.

    You mention that SpaceX's rockets have failed several times since 2006. You are 100% correct, there were minor issues in their VERY FIRST FLIGHTS, conducted only 4 years after the companies inception. You build a rocket from the ground up in 4 years. You're clearly not an engineer. If you were you'd know that "to fail early and often" is the only way to design a good product. Since these failures there have been none. Including the successful first two launches of SpaceX's medium launch vehicle, the Falcon 9.

    Inspiring competition in Americas engineers, entrepreneurs, and more importantly, its dreamers, is the only way for us to make true strides forward in manned spaceflight. So what if "America" can't lift up astronauts itself for a measly couple of years? America will emerge 10 times more powerful when it has a spaceflight industry, competitive with itself and with the governments of other nations.

    • USMCSniper

      I agree that in principle that space exploration bot unmanned and manned should be privatized, but we have signed on to national and international political agreements. These internation treaties encompasses national laws, and many countries have passed national space legislation in recent years. The Outer Space Treaty requires parties GOVERNMENTS to authorize and supervise ALL national space activities, including the activities of non-governmental entities such as commercial and non-profit organizations. The Outer Space Treaty also incorporates the UN Charter by reference, and requires parties to ensure that activities are conducted in accordance with other forms of international law such as customary international law (the custom and practice of states). The government oversight and controlt of any commercial space activities beyond the scope of the satellite communications industry and even the experimental Space Plane put such restrictions such that commercial investment
      is not only high risk economically but not worth the government red tape. I went through this in the 1980's when Fairchild Space in Germantown Maryland, tried a commerical venture that had so many government roadblocks it was abandoned.

  • Chezwick_Mac

    Budgetary realities are going to preclude a lot of things that would otherwise be desirable. Defense and national security is more important than space-travel in the minds of most, and it too will have to take a big hit if we're ever going to justify massive entitlement cuts.

    In my recent discourse with liberal/lefties at politicususa.com, the ONE thing they agreed with me about was my acknowledgment that an insolvent America could no longer afford the status of being a global super-power. It was music to their ears. The difference between us of course is that I see the end of that status as a NECESSARY EVIL, that the world will be a more dangerous, insecure place without America's leadership, but that we simply don't have the money to continue playing the role of world-policeman.

    In the warped universe of the left, America's declining status is an intrinsic good, the end of "imperialism." They're eager for the vacuum to be filled by despots and totalitarians.

    • Wesley69

      They share the same vision as their leader, President Obama.

      As for space, it is the last frontier. The country controling space, controls this planet. It is the military high ground. We surrender it at our peril. The Chinese and or the Russians will surely take advantage of our absence from space, and if and when we return, we will be behind them in capabilities.

      • Chezwick_Mac

        It's a tragedy, to be sure. But when you're $14Trillion in debt for having lived high on the hog for so long, there's not a whole lot that can be done. If we're ever going to sell the end of the entitlement culture to a soft, pampered populace (and I have serious doubts we will be able to), we can't be diverting countless billions to aircraft carriers and space-ships.

        Then again, we could just carry on like business as usual and wait for the coming crash.

        • Wesley69

          Forget about the coming crash if there is no defense. Forget about life as usual if either Russia or China control space. Hard choices need to be made for sure. Waste needs to be addressed. The Bureaucracy in Washington needs to be addressed. The Bureaucracy running the entitlements needs to be addressed. Government needs to be smaller. Lets start with abolishing the Departments of Education, Energy, Housing & Urban Development, freezing all salaries of government workers, cutting benefits that are overly generous.

          • Chezwick_Mac

            Friend, I've been a foreign policy hawk my entire life…a huge proponent of both defense and NASA. I understand exactly where you're coming from. The difference between us is that I've modified my expectations to conform to new realities.

            You can talk all you want about the need for cuts, but when it's finally happening, literally millions of lives are going to be affected….many of them children. The change in culture and mentality is going to be HUGE. We'll never build even a rough consensus for as long as we continue spending hundreds of billions annually on defense/space.

            I'm looking past the …"we need to do this"…"we need to do that"…and am actually trying to visualize the painful decisions involved, the ingrained constituencies – mostly poor – that will be disenfranchised and impoverished…and all of it absolutely necessary if we're ever going to overcome our fiscal problems. The necessary changes will never come off without corresponding cuts to defense, space, and corporate welfare.

          • Wesley69

            I tip my hat to you. Since I was in college back in the 70"s, I've been a student of the US government. Now in retirement I have had even more time to study the government. I understand the need to get our house in order. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has such a plan. It will be painful. But certain things I hope, the government will not cut, but increase funding for; one being our need to have the capacity to put men into space. Spaceships that can carry defense hardware, satellites in space. Maybe we should postpone the Moon and Mars missions, but should China and Russia militarize space, a written agreement isn't going to help us.

          • Chezwick_Mac

            Certainly agree with the last sentence. Hell, China has already tested a laser weapon in space and successfully destroyed one of their own satellites (creating a mass of space debris).

            The whole frigg'n subject matter is depressing. Truth is, I don't think we have the collective wisdom or maturity to ever get our spending problem under control.

          • Wesley69

            Unfortunately, I believe you are right. I'm afraid we've got Weimar Inflation coming. I'd advise getting into gold, but in the 30's FDR confiscated it. Silver is the better deal and is way undervalued as opposed to gold.

          • Jim_C

            I'm tipping my hat to you, as well. The very fact that you acknowledge there are hard realities to be faced with necessary cuts, that cuts are not just something to vent about, that there have to be consequences for huge swaths of the population (and not just the ones liberals care about)–it's refreshing.

            But I submit that just as say, busting up public sector unions is something might be considered overdue, so is our foreign policy. Frankly, a lot of countries have gone beyond us in certain sectors, partly because they counted on us for defense. It is time to get out of the World Police business and let them figure some of this stuff out. We should not have to be the one lynchpin of stability. We have looked outward too long at the expense of our domestic shores. I'm not proposing isolationism by any stretch, but a reordering of doctrine.

  • Patrick McKelheer

    With all of the NASA chatter lately I haven’t heard anythibg about the planned ‘-bternational Space Cebter” to be located ib the Yucatan,0Mexico. The Mexican goverment has passed the legislation and the 3ussians are going to provide techbical support. Accordibg to “)ucatan Living” a NASA astronaut and engineer have visited the site.

  • SHmuelHaLevi

    Sorry spectacle for sure.
    I had the honor of contributing to the US Space Programs Apollo and Hubble. Remarkably what both comments before mine fail to understand is that NASA did not produce any of the items the US used and is using in Space Research and travel. Every single part, assembly, subsystem and system was made by privetely owned companies not part of the government.
    That expertiise will soon be archived and or shredded and lost.
    Private entrepreneurs are remarkable people. I also founded my own company.
    Yet Space Programs require far more than just a vehicle and a few scaterred training facilities.
    The decision is another terrible blow to America.

  • USMCSniper

    Ayn Rand would have welcomed columnist Charles Krauthammer as a spokesman — a spiritual comrade-in-arms, one might say — on the matter of space exploration. In his recent July 17 column, “The Moon We Forgot,” Krauthammer bemoans what he describes as America’s retreat from space: “After countless millennia of gazing and dreaming, we finally got off the ground at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Within 65 years, a nanosecond in human history, we’d landed on the moon. Then five more landings, 10 more moonwalkers, and, in the decades since, nothing…. America’s manned space program is in shambles. Fourteen months from today, for the first time since 1962, the U.S. will be incapable not just of sending a man to the moon but of sending anyone into Earth orbit. We’ll be totally grounded.”

    And Ayn Rand would have relished Krauthammer’s telling rhetorical question:

    “So what, you say? Don’t we have problems here on Earth? Oh please. Poverty and disease and social ills will always be with us. If we’d waited for them to be rectified before venturing out, we’d still be living in caves.”

    • Wesley69

      A great post, USMCSniper!!!

  • JosephWiess

    Dumbass politicians, and a stupid president have put this country in danger. What could we do if Russia, China, or any other country put nukes in orbit, or on the ISS? Without a way to carry our soldiers into space, or our space forces into space, we'll have no way to get rid of the danger.

    Obama is a left wing nut that needs to be put in a looney bin, as do the legislators that cancelled the project. Like everything else we need, we need to have our own way into space.

    • Jim_C

      Nukes in space!! And to think it was all because that loony nut job, Obama. didn't protect us from nukes in space via our space program in 2011 because of having to "cut the federal budget" or some other stupid reason!

      I look on the bright side, though–There's just something new to fret and twitter about every day, isn't there? I'm going to try to make something up to be afraid of for next week! Maybe FPM can publish it! Maybe a spaceship funded by George Soros and manned by Islamist Communists with illegal Mexican workers…Why isn't Obama stopping that?!! Budget cuts? Yeah right. He just wants America to fail!!!!

  • Jikkiyu

    Space is a terrible place for people to be and is a terribly expensive place to put and keep them. Manned space operations serve no substantive national security purpose. The program is continued because of stranded constituencies and a vaguely nostalgic sense that putting men in space is a symbol of national power and progress.

    Hold the presses, but we won that race when it was held back in the 60's. No one else has come close, even with all the benefits of 50 years of experience and added tools and technologies. We can feel good about the USA and calmly put a stake in the heart of this blood-sucking enterprise.

    If you want to spend $ on national power demonstrations in space, do it with a technology of the future – automated and robotic systems. When it makes sense to send people into space again, we'll figure out how – presumably in less than the 10 years it took for us to get to the moon from scratch.

    • USMCSniper

      You say: " When it makes sense to send people into space again, we'll figure out how – presumably in less than the 10 years it took for us to get to the moon from scratch." In the meantime I guess you want to have us put hundreds of billions of dollars more into the bloodsucking black community so they can breed millions more illegitimate little black babies. By that time all the skilled engineers will be Chinese and they will own the moon. and in 20 years we will look like Liberia. This is what I mean — -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ux1W_2lPn68

  • Jim_C

    "I would advise reading , THE ROOTS OF OBAMA'S RAGE, by DINESH D'SOUZA. Once you read it, you can understand the whys behind almost everything Obama does."

    Yes…I believe you can find it in the "Speculative Fiction" section.