The Landing Zone | 9.18.14
By Alan W. Dowd
decades past—until very recently, as a matter of fact—outer space was
what fired the imagination. Young people dreamed about it. The best and
brightest among us devoted their talents to it. Presidents and poets
pointed to it for inspiration. Space was America's endless new frontier.
what Cmdr. Neil Armstrong, Col. Buzz Aldrin and Lt. Col. Michael
Collins said 45 years ago this month—on Sept. 16, 1969—before a joint session of Congress convened to celebrate Apollo 11's return from the moon. "It was here in
these halls," Armstrong observed, "that our venture really began. Here
the Space Act of 1958 was framed, the chartering document of the
National Aeronautic and Space Administration. And here in the years that
followed the key decisions that permitted the successive steps of
Mercury and Gemini and Apollo were permitted."
challenged America by borrowing a famous phrase from Armstrong: "What
we do in further space exploration programs will determine just how
giant a leap we have taken." Expecting that leap to be large, Collins
pointed America's gaze deeper into space. "Someday in the
not-too-distant future, when I listen to an earthling step out onto the
surface of Mars or some other planet, just as I listened to Neil step
out onto the surface of the moon, I hope I hear him say: ‘I come from
the United States of America.'"
things have changed. Today, most of us are fixated on our laptops,
iPhones and supersized TVs. We "explore" cyberspace, rather than outer
space. And NASA has "Pluto status," as one Beltway observer cleverly
puts it. We have quite literally turned inward, shifting our gaze from
the heavens to our hand-helds.
The rest of the world is not following suit. Russia conducted 36 spaceflights in 2013, the United States 19. China bested America's launch total in
2012 and 2011. And both China and Russia are able to do something
America cannot do: deploy humans into space on their own rockets.
is a result of the premature end of the space shuttle program, which
came on July 21, 2011. NASA had planned to deploy the shuttle until
2022. In fact, each shuttle was built for 100 missions. (Discovery, the
oldest of the now-retired shuttles, flew just 39.) But the loss of
Columbia in 2003 radically altered plans to fly space shuttles into the
shuttle's critics, citing the Columbia and Challenger disasters, always
argued that it was too expensive and too undependable. It's worth
noting, however, that for 17 solid years between those twin tragedies
the shuttle made the miracle of human spaceflight so seemingly
effortless and ordinary that it became a footnote. Takeoffs weren't
televised, spacewalks weren't broadcast and landings weren't reported.
Carrying humans beyond that place where space and sky collide—and
back—was just part of what America did. So, policymakers from both
parties and the public at large shrugged at the man-made miracle of
spaceflight and largely failed to invest in, plan for or think about
life after the shuttle.
result: The greatest spacefaring power in history is stuck on earth,
and NASA is paying Vladimir Putin's Russia $70.7 million per seat to
deliver Americans to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The
Pentagon even relies on Russian-built rocket enginesto launch military satellites—a partnership Moscow plans to kill due to Washington's response to the Ukraine crisis.
began carrying American crews and cargo to ISS after the Columbia
disaster. Relying on Russia was always an imperfect workaround. Michael
Griffin, NASA administrator under President George W. Bush, called it
"unseemly in the extreme"—and understandably so. But collaborating with
Russia as a short-term stopgap is far different than counting on Putin
indefinitely. Consider the high-stakes bargaining—or if you prefer,
blackmail—this unfortunate situation invites. Just as worrisome is
Russia's space competence. In 2011, Russia lost an unmanned spacecraft
for a few days and then found it in the wrong orbit. This followed
failure of a Russian satellite to reach orbit due to what news agencies
called "a basic fuel miscalculation."
NASA's dwindling resources, the U.S. space program's freefall to earth
was predictable. Consider the difference between Washington's investment
in the pre-Apollo NASA and the post-shuttle NASA. In the early 1960s,
NASA accounted for about 1.1 percent of federal spending. Today, NASA
outlays amount to less than 0.5 percent of federal spending.
old saying, "You get what you pay for," is true. Since manned
spaceflight was not a priority, funding declined, and a gap between the
end of the shuttle and the beginning of its successor program emerged.
Under the Bush administration's plan, that gap had a defined endpoint of March 2015. The Bush administration proposed phasing out the shuttle to divert resources to the Constellation program,
which would use the best of the shuttle and Apollo programs to carry
Americans beyond low-earth orbit. But President Barack Obama canceled Constellationand flat-lined NASA spending: NASA funding was $17.8 billion in 2012 and just $17.6 billion in 2014.
on a brave face, NASA chief Charles Bolden—a former astronaut—says
Washington's spending plan for NASA "requires us to live within our
means," which is what Americans expect of their government. It's just
that Washington's willingness to starve NASA stands in such stark
contrast to its eagerness to pour unprecedented sums into so many other
The China Challenge
retreat from the high ground might make sense if the rest of the world
had given up the quest for space, or if America had no security
interests in space. Of course, the very opposite is true.
India, Russia, South Korea and Britain each increased spending on space
programs by 25 percent or more between 2012 and 2013. The Space Foundation reports worldwide space-related economic activity is exploding and now exceeds $304 billion annually.
the United States depends on space for communications, commerce,
transportation, emergency services and most notably, national security.
Missile-defense ships prowling the Pacific, airmen striking ISIS in
Iraq, ground troops rebuilding Afghanistan, UCAVs circling over Yemen,
JDAMs strapped to loitering bombers, sensors monitoring Russian, Chinese
and North Korean nukes, and the infrastructure and superstructure of
the entire military rely on space assets. Sometime in the
not-too-distant future, space will become more than just a means to
support military operations. It will become a theater of military
operations. "We know from history that every medium—air, land and
sea—has seen conflict," as a blue-ribbon commission on space concluded more than a decade ago. "Reality indicates that space will be no different."
leaders fully grasp this. "If you control space," observes Gen. Xu
Qiliang, commander of China's air force, "you can also control the land
and the sea."
to the Pentagon, "China is developing a multi-dimensional program to
limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by its potential
adversaries during times of crisis or conflict."
2007, 2010 and July 2014, Beijing tested anti-satellite missiles
(ASAT), demonstrating its ability to attack American satellites in
low-earth orbit. A 2008 Pentagon report quotes Chinese military planners
as envisioning a "space shock and awe strike." A 2014 Pentagon report
concludes China is executing "a multi-dimensional program to improve its
capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by
got ourselves into this fix, and we can get ourselves out. But it's
going to take time, talent and treasure. Regrettably, we don't have a
surplus of any of these right now.
day Washington defers hard decisions and needed investments is a day
China and Russia close the gap—or worse, expand their lead. Building new
spaceships is not like flipping a light switch. Yet it can be done
sooner rather than later—Constellation offers a roadmap—but only if
America summons the will to begin. The alternative, as President John
Kennedy warned in 1962, is "to founder in the backwash of the coming age
to talent, the Apollo generation's pool of physicists and engineers is
rapidly draining away. According to the Space Foundation, only 15
percent of NASA's civilian employees are under 35, and more than 26
percent are over 54. Some 38 percent of technology PhDs are conferred on
foreign-born students, "most of whom return to their home countries,"
according to Griffin. In short, we have regressed from in-sourcing space
operations to outsourcing them, which brings us to treasure.
next chapter in space depends on a healthy, innovative economy; a mix
of public-private space partnerships; policies and incentives that
persuade foreign-born, U.S.-schooled scientists to apply their talents
here; and, yes, increased investment. To be sure, we must guard against a
return to what historian Paul Johnson once called "the show-biz era of
space travel," with "its contempt for finance." But there is a happy
medium between profligacy and minimalism.
the matter of public-private partnerships, there's nothing in the
Constitution that says sending men and material into space is the sole
prerogative of government. That explains why NASA is subcontracting out
ISS replenishment flights to companies like SpaceX, whose Falcon 9
rocket can carry 22,000 pounds into orbit. (The space shuttle could
deliver a 65,000-pound payload into orbit.)
protecting and promoting the nation's security is the central
prerogative and duty of government. That explains why some observers
propose shifting non-private space operations to the U.S. military. Such
a transition may already be underway. Whether it's by design or by
accident is unknown. What we do know is that national-security space
spending is estimated to be more than double the shrinking NASA budget;
the Air Force has invested $100 billion the past 16 years on what it calls "cutting-edge space capabilities";
and the Air Force is testing super-secret assets like the X-37B, which
can fly some 500 nautical miles above the earth and can loiter in space
for more than a year at a time without
returning. The unmanned X-37B has flown highly classified missions
since 2010. There are reports that Boeing may build a larger variant of
the space plane—the X-37C—capable of carrying more cargo and six
astronauts into space.
nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to
stay behind in the race for space," Kennedy declared in 1962, when
Russian rockets ruled the heavens. Given that his call to action applies
yet again, perhaps it's time for today's policymakers to borrow a page
from the man who set our sights on the moon, heed the words of the
Apollo 11 crew and point America back toward space.
The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.