New age of exploration

STANFORD, Calif. — Historians will look back on early 2004 as a momentous period in the life of our universe. The landing of two exploratory vehicles on Mars [that recently reported evidence that plant once was awash with potentially life-supporting water] and President George W. Bush’s speech at NASA headquarters earlier this year indicate the world has embarked on a new age of exploration.

Sending astronauts to the moon is no longer a sufficient goal, as it was for an earlier generation. The president has clearly indicated NASA’s new mission will transform the moon into a base for the “next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and worlds beyond.”

At first glance, Mr. Bush’s words evoke parallels with President John F. Kennedy’s muscular rhetoric in the early 1960s. Just as Kennedy promised reaching the moon would “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” Mr. Bush announced “we choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives, and lifts our national spirit.”

Presidents Kennedy and Bush both spoke of space exploration as an exercise in strengthening the technical proficiency and moral fiber of the nation. Not surprisingly, the Bush White House issued a press release describing a “desire to open new frontiers” the exact pioneering imagery espoused by Kennedy.

The differences in the Bush and Kennedy space programs, however, far exceed surface similarities. For Kennedy, space exploration was a race against the Soviet Union, a Cold War battle to prove American superiority. His famous call for “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth,” was to be a benchmark of how a free society could outperform an authoritarian competitor.

Space exploration was one of many races the United States had to win for long-term victory in the Cold War. Beyond this goal, space travel served no other tangible purpose. Shortly after the United States won the race to the moon in 1969, public interest in more ambitious missions quickly dissipated. Americans saw little value in pushing this new frontier any further at the time.

This all changed with arrival of the two exploratory vehicles on Mars and Mr. Bush’s speech. The president has acknowledged the United States faces no immediate competitors in space. American military prowess and technological ingenuity are without parallel in today’s world.

Space exploration is now part of an expansive vision of foreign policy that involves applying American power on a broad geographical canvas from the Middle East to outer space.

Just as we have increased the role of our military forces in various corners of the Earth during the last three years, we will now “extend a human presence across our solar system.” The president’s plans include developing new spacecraft, establishing launching points outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and harnessing extraterrestrial resources that will “boggle the imagination” and “test our limits to dream.”

Mr. Bush’s program will create a new American empire in space that will resemble the ocean-born empires of the European states in the 17th and 18th centuries. The United States will stake claim to new “open” territories, leverage their resources, and settle them on a small scale.

As in the first era of exploration, travel to new horizons will inspire some of the national virtues Mr. Bush extols: “daring, discipline, ingenuity, and unity in the pursuit of great goals.” If the past is any guide, however, exploration also will bring its share of problems, even for a country as powerful as the United States.

There are three difficulties, in particular, we must prepare to confront:

• First, exploration creates new vulnerabilities. This is, as historian Paul Kennedy has explained, the paradox of imperial expansion. Exerting its control over space, the United States will gain valuable resources, prestige and self-confidence. The nation will also become dependent on far-flung infrastructures costly to defend. Entrepreneurial terrorists (or in 18th-century terms, pirates) will attack the power lines and communication channels on Earth, and eventually in space, that make exploration possible.

• Second, Mr. Bush’s program will inspire competitors. Other advanced industrial societies will want to show they too can play in the big leagues. They also will fear for their security and prosperity with the U.S. in virtual control of the heavens.

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