Monday, February 23, 2004

If the fiery streaks of Columbia wreckage raining down on Texas over a year ago seemed like a death knell for America’s space program, then President Bush’s new call for a rebirth of human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit is the beginning of its resurrection.

For more than 30 years, the U.S. space agency has wandered in the wilderness of bureaucratic inertia and down-to-Earth politics. Waiting for a new mission, a new dream, a new chance to do great things, NASA and its industrial contractors had grown too cynical and paranoid, and appeared unable or unwilling to accept leadership from space supporters like Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. In the powerful words of Sen. Sam Brownback, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, the space community seemed not only pessimistic and beaten-down but lacking in soul, devoid of the passionate spirit that permeated the agency during its youthful Apollo-glory days.

The reasons why NASA lost its faith are interesting but not really that important. What counts now is whether and how every participant in America’s space enterprise, including not just scientists and engineers but politicians, entrepreneurs and taxpayers alike, will look into their hearts and commit themselves to serve generations hence.

What President George W. Bush laid out on Jan. 14 was not merely a thoughtful and intelligent plan for NASA, but perhaps the most basic and powerful vision for human spaceflight, one that can enable and ennoble everyone’s goals regarding space exploration: opening the cosmos for and to a free humanity.

Space exploration is not merely about the wonders of science and technology, although it produces countless discoveries and innovations. It is not merely about stunning images and daring adventures, although it has those aplenty. And to the disbelief of so many space professionals and aficionados alike, it is not even really about outer space.

Rather, space exploration is about strengthening and spreading the very essence of freedom: the magic of going and doing what you want, where you want, when you want and why you want. It is about the endless and innately human quest for a better, wiser and richer life, not just for yourself today but for generations hence. Freedom is as much about the creation and pursuit of new dreams, horizons and challenges as it is about achieving them.

In the Beltway buzz leading up to Mr. Bush’s announcement, there was much talk about his initiative being an attempt to proclaim “big ideas” and create a positive counterpoint to America’s daunting war on terrorism or the painful challenge of completing the liberation of Iraq. Ironically, I believe Mr. Bush’s space agenda actually flows from the same values and instincts that buttress and shape his approach to those national security crises.

Albeit different in topic and tone, Mr. Bush’s call for “a renewed spirit of discovery” evokes to me the cause he spoke of so eloquently last fall to the National Endowment for Democracy and at Whitehall in the United Kingdom: advancing the cause of human freedom. Indeed, fighting for freedom requires not just destroying its enemies but affirming and extending its reach, power and majesty.

Twenty-five years ago, in “The Virtues of Boldness,” George F. Will powerfully distinguished between Dwight Eisenhower’sandJohn Kennedy’s space agendas:

“Eisenhower thought like aquartermaster.He thought, rightly, that a space program would be useful for developing important hardware, but a moon shot would be unnecessary. Kennedy thought like a general: hardware matters, but intangibles do too. A moon landing became central to Kennedy’s space program because, to him, the program was only secondarily about scientific or military benefits. It was primarily about politics, in a grand sense: it was about defining and shaping the nation’s spirit and confounding its enemies.”

In that context, Mr. Bush hasindeedfoundhis “Kennedy moment.” By realigning our space program toward opening the space frontier to and for all humanity, Mr. Bush has thrown the space agency’s cap over the wall. NASA has no other option but to let go of its bureaucratic past and pursue this risky but rewarding future. Of course, Congress must join with the president and do its part as well.

Achieving this vision will take many more speeches and cost real political, as well as budgetary, capital. But if this initiative succeeds, our grandchildren will remember this space initiative not only in addition to Mr. Bush’s stewardship of the war to defend freedom, but as leading to one of our greatest strategic victories in that long struggle.

James A. M. Muncy is an independent space policy consultant.

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