NASA has scheduled the final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis for Friday. This 12-day mission to the International Space Station not only will be the final space-shuttle flight, but, without a serious course correction, augurs the end of America’s pre-eminence in space altogether.
Since 1960, America’s space program has been the crown jewel and Exhibit A of American exceptionalism. It has been a symbol of our spirit, ingenuity and technological prowess. It has fueled and sustained an economic expansion unparalleled in history and has powered the most awesome and unrivaled global military capability since the Roman Empire.
Yet our space program has been in a slow and steady decline since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1989, our lead in all aspects of space and space technology was so large that even decades of neglect, waste and inaction have left us without peer in almost all categories even today. This won’t last long. We are eating our technology seed corn.
How did this happen? It wasn’t because of inattention. President George H. W. Bush saw the coming crisis as he took office in 1989 and took bold and courageous steps to prevent reversing course on space exploration. In the face of a call for a defense “peace dividend” in 1990, he added money for new launch capabilities, for programs including the National Aerospace Plane and a new National Launch System. He beefed up spending on the advanced work of the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), all while sustaining an almost 20 percent cut in defense spending overall.
For NASA, Mr. Bush requested a one-time 25 percent increase in spending and a plan for 10 percent annual increases for five years thereafter. On July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the landing of Apollo XI on the moon, he stood on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum and called for a new round of exploration, back to the moon, this time to stay, and then a journey to tomorrow, a human mission to Mars. His justification was simple: It is Americans’ destiny to explore and to lead. Mr. Bush’s program plan was steady and even, with heavy emphasis on new technology development and new ways of doing business. His vision was clear: We would continue our exploration of space not in competition, but in cooperation with the nations of the world, even our recent enemy, Russia. None of those plans came to fruition. The reasons are clear. Our institutions are bloated, wasteful and bureaucratic. Elected representatives act as fiscal stewards of jobs in their states and districts, making efficient and coherent allocation of resources nearly impossible. Private industry wields its consolidated power to smother competition, grow cost and mimic its slow and bureaucratic customer. And the academic community, for its part, deftly uses its power to influence, adjudicate and validate government science initiatives to ensure that it gets its “fair share” of the exploration pie.
The system has become adept at resisting reprioritization and powerful in protecting itself and the status quo. The only successful initiatives to alter the direction of our space efforts at the national level since the end of the Cold War have been negative. Cuts count; they force change.
President Clinton dramatically reoriented and redefined the space station by cutting its budget in half and threatening to cancel it outright. President Obama has changed the human spaceflight program by letting the shuttle fly out, commercializing operations of the space station and canceling the Constellation program. His intention, properly, is to use the savings to underwrite new developments. Even in the best of times this would be difficult, but current fiscal realities are likely to push Congress to harvest much of the savings for deficit reduction. Worse, the president’s space team is sending conflicting signals about its commitment to his plan.
For decades, America introduced inventions to the world, such as high-speed and personal computers, robotics, satellite telecommunications, lasers, solar panels, laparoscopic surgery, nanomachines and nuclear medicine, and built industries and high-tech jobs around each of them in a seemingly unending cavalcade of spinoff technologies developed by our space programs. Will space remain an economic and technological catalyst for America in the coming decades, or is our future in innovations like Facebook and Twitter?
The conventional wisdom in the federal bureaucracy is that you can reduce spending or you can restructure, reprioritize and reorganize. You can cut programs or start new programs. But you can’t do both. Now, our backs are to the wall. To re-establish our leadership in space, we must defy conventional wisdom and cut spending, start new initiatives and radically restructure a mature agency - all at the same time. It won’t be pleasant, and it won’t be easy, but neither was putting a man on the moon.
Mark J. Albrecht is chairman of U.S. Space. He was the principal adviser on space to President George H. W. Bush and author of “Falling Back to Earth: A First Hand Account of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War” (New Media Books, 2011).