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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