Monday, March 12, 2012

Why We Should Keep Reaching for the Stars

From Neil deGrasse Tyson, at Foreign Affairs, "The Case for Space":

In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama articulated his vision for the future of American space exploration, which included an eventual manned mission to Mars. Such an endeavor would surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars -- maybe even $1 trillion. Whatever the amount, it would be an expensive undertaking. In the past, only three motivations have led societies to spend that kind of capital on ambitious, speculative projects: the celebration of a divine or royal power, the search for profit, and war. Examples of praising power at great expense include the pyramids in Egypt, the vast terra-cotta army buried along with the first emperor of China, and the Taj Mahal in India. Seeking riches in the New World, the monarchs of Iberia funded the great voyages of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan. And military incentives spurred the building of the Great Wall of China, which helped keep the Mongols at bay, and the Manhattan Project, whose scientists conceived, designed, and built the first atomic bomb.

In 1957, the Soviet launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, spooked the United States into the space race. A year later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was born amid an atmosphere defined by Cold War fears. But for years to come, the Soviet Union would continue to best the United States in practically every important measure of space achievement, including the first space walk, the longest space walk, the first woman in space, the first space station, and the longest time logged in space. But by defining the Cold War contest as a race to the moon and nothing else, the United States gave itself permission to ignore the milestones it missed along the way.

In a speech to a joint session of Congress in May 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the Apollo program, famously declaring, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” These were powerful words, and they galvanized the nation. But a more revealing passage came earlier in the speech, when Kennedy reflected on the challenge presented by the Soviets’ space program: “If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”

Kennedy’s speech was not simply a call for advancement or achievement; it was a battle cry against communism. He might have simply said, “Let’s go to the moon: what a marvelous place to explore!” But no one would have written the check. And at some point, somebody has got to write the check.

If the United States commits to the goal of reaching Mars, it will almost certainly do so in reaction to the progress of other nations -- as was the case with NASA, the Apollo program, and the project that became the International Space Station. For the past decade, I have joked with colleagues that the United States would land astronauts on Mars in a year or two if only the Chinese would leak a memo that revealed plans to build military bases there.

The joke does not seem quite so funny anymore. Last December, China released an official strategy paper describing an ambitious five-year plan to advance its space capabilities. According to the paper, China intends to “launch space laboratories, manned spaceship and space freighters; make breakthroughs in and master space station key technologies, including astronauts’ medium-term stay, regenerative life support and propellant refueling; conduct space applications to a certain extent and make technological preparations for the construction of space stations.” A front-page headline in The New York Times captured the underlying message: “Space Plan From China Broadens Challenge to U.S.”

When it comes to its space programs, China is not in the habit of proffering grand but empty visions. Far from it: the country has an excellent track record of matching promises with achievements. During a 2002 visit to China as part of my service on a White House commission, I listened to Chinese officials speak of putting a man into space in the near future. Perhaps I was afflicted by a case of American hubris, but it was easy to think that “near future” meant decades. Yet 18 months later, in the fall of 2003, Yang Liwei became the first Chinese taikonaut, executing 14 orbits of Earth. Five years after that, Zhai Zhigang took the first Chinese space walk. Meanwhile, in January 2007, when China wanted to dispose of a nonfunctioning weather satellite, the People’s Liberation Army conducted the country’s first surface-to-orbit “kinetic kill,” destroying the satellite with a high-speed missile -- the first such action by any country since the 1980s. With each such achievement, China moves one step closer to becoming an autonomous space power, reaching the level of (and perhaps even outdistancing) the European Union, Russia, and the United States, in terms of its commitment and resources.

China’s latest space proclamations could conceivably produce another “Sputnik moment” for the United States, spurring the country into action after a relatively fallow period in its space efforts. But in addition to the country’s morbid fiscal state, a new obstacle might stand in the way of a reaction as fervent and productive as that in Kennedy’s era: the partisanship that now clouds space exploration.
Video c/o Theo Spark.