The US Must Lead in Space

By Joan Vernikos, Ph.D.

A two-year-old walks holding her mother’s hand. In a flash, she slips away and dashes into the street – no different from an astronaut launching into space. The instinct to explore, to experience freedom by escaping mother’s grasp or the gravity that keeps us pinned to Earth are in the human genome. Space exploration has been the stuff of Jules Verne and science fiction. We went to the Moon and gazed back at Earth, measured man-made climate changes, explored the universe through the telescopic eyes of Hubble and dreamt of some day visiting Mars. Wondering whether there is life elsewhere or settling on other planets stirs the imagination. Space was the new frontier of the 20th century. There is no going back.

The USA must retain its leadership in space through a vigorous exploration program. Space is fertile ground for forging international collaborations in the 21st century. The space-faring club now has five members – the USA , Russia , China , Japan and France/Europe. China and Russia intend to send humans to the Moon. India , S. Korea and Iran declared space-faring ambitions. International collaboration is evident in robotic mapping of the Moon. No single country can afford to send humans to Mars. On the other hand, space launch capability and satellites are dual use – civilian and military. Rockets can be ballistic missiles and the market for such products is hot. Satellites from 43 countries are circling the Earth observing climate change, weather, communications or vital national security. Russia , France and China have overtaken the US in the lucrative commercial launch business.

The Return on Investment (R.O.I) from Space Exploration comes in numerous tangible and intangible ways. Space remains a novelty, a source of excitement and inspiration. Walk into a classroom, mention ‘space,’ and you have undivided attention. Channeling this enthusiasm into science or engineering is easy given consistent opportunities for involvement in the great space adventure. This approach is guaranteed to lead to new technologies in unimaginable ways. A mission to Mars or a Moon base requires a proven closed-loop life support system, making sure humans in space live and function effectively safely shielded from radiation. Applications on Earth find their way into new products which improve everyday life, health, create jobs and revenue.

The commercial potential of space exploration is huge. Since the mid1990s the manufacture and launch of communication and remote-sensing satellites exceeded government spending. The aerospace and national security industries depend on it. Space tourism is well on its way. Spaceports are appearing across the world. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of Paypal see space as a promising investment. SpaceDev is considering space mining. There are ores on the Moon, Mars and asteroids. Exciting discoveries on how gravity on Earth affects health will impact health care costs. For only 0.55% percent of the national budget NASA’s R.O.I. has been remarkable. Continued success hinges on a stable stream of government investment and visionary leadership.

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