The Landing Zone | 9.18.14
By Alan W. Dowd

In 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.

Consider 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."

Aldrin 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.'"

How 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.

This 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 2020s.

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.

The 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.

Russia 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."

Given 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.

The 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.

Putting 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 government programs.

The China Challenge

This 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.

Canada, 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.

Moreover, 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."

China's 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."

According 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."

In 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 adversaries."

Looking Up

We 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.

Every 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 of space."

As 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.

America's 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.

On 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.)

However, 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.

"No 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.