- - Monday, April 15, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“Now, make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” said a stern Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, at the council’s March 26 gathering.

The vice president is right. While space exploration carried a certain weight of importance during the Cold War, current technology and international ambitions have multiplied that thread today several times over.

Many will mock its importance. Detractors of President Trump act like its straight out of a science fiction novel, but make no mistake, outer space is gradually morphing into the war-fighting domain of the future.

China has been working overtime to weaponize space. Last December, it became the first nation to land on the far side of the moon, and senior U.S. defense officials worry that the country’s military can now target American satellites from deep space ground stations that it has created.

According to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Russia for its part has been engaging in a “disturbing” pursuit of counter space capabilities, with the country unveiling “six new major offensive weapons systems.”

Although it may feel that the United States is lagging by comparison, Mr. Pence remains vigilant but not worried. He astutely pointed out that when the first space race began 62 years ago, the Soviet Union took an early lead but “we refused to accept a future in space written by the enemies of freedom.” Instead, “12 years later, the ‘one giant leap’ occurred. We achieved our goal of American leadership in space.”

The current administration understands that with the right direction, American innovation and ingenuity always prevails. Priorities of the past White House administrations, which allowed other countries to gain a leg up, are thankfully long gone. With the current vice president and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine now unleashing the suppressed market forces within the industry, America will come on top again in no time at all.

That is why the current administration set a goal of getting the United States back to the moon and staying there for good: To beat the other rogue nations that are trying to operationalize it for reasons that are far from innocuous.

Under the Obama administration, not much went right with NASA, but thankfully the one thing that did will help greatly in achieving the White House’s current objective. In 2014, NASA began building the Space Launch System (SLS), the one rocket that will allow the United States to reach the moon before the end of the decade. When finished, it will offer more payload mass and volume capability than any existing launch vehicle, all while being the largest rocket ever constructed by NASA that can satisfy the Trump administration’s deep space ambitions.

But America will never beat rogue nations back to the moon if NASA does not stand behind the Space Launch System and make finishing it in a timely fashion a priority. That is why in his remarks, Mr. Pence called for the agency to “accelerate the Space Launch System” — because without it, the United States has no fallback options in place.

NASA has experienced some completion delays with the Space Launch System, which were expected since no one, commercially or otherwise, has ever built anything even remotely similar to it. But these setbacks should motivate NASA to double its efforts in finishing the rocket and completing the mission itself.

Without the Space Launch System, reaching the moon again will be actually be left up almost exclusively to science fiction novels. Jim Bridenstine’s extensive two-week review on the upcoming moon mission, completed at the end of March, confirmed this, demonstrating that no other rockets currently fall “within [NASA’s] timeline and objective” for their goals, which “reaffirmed [NASA’s] commitment to the SLS.”

The clock is ticking, as China is planning to undercut the United States’ efforts by launching a rocket they explicitly state will be larger than SLS by 2028. The Space Launch System may be America’s lifeline in the space race, but it is one that must be completed on time if it is to succeed. The Trump administration is saying the right things but now must act to ensure that NASA has all of the resources it needs to complete the project on time and get America back to the moon before America’s adversaries do. The country’s national security depends on it.

• Jon Justice is author of “Embark.” He is a radio host in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota and host of the “My Nerd World: A Star Wars Podcast.”

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