Leadership in Space

May 2nd, 2005

Posted by: admin

Technological and political leadership has been an important goal for NASA over the last fifty years. Particularly during the early days of space exploration, international competition between the Soviet and U.S. space programs spurred manned and unmanned missions, with each country achieving important milestones in space exploration. Now, the Bush Administration’s call on NASA to pursue novel and unique capabilities to send manned missions to the Moon and Mars reflects a dedication to space leadership as a tool of international politics.

NASA explicitly defends the inclusion of manned missions to the Moon and Mars in terms of leadership saying in a recent budget document, [PDF] “[Humans] will also serve as a potent symbol of American democracy, a reminder of what the human spirit can achieve in a free society.” The Administration’s rhetoric of exploration supports a view of space as ground for proving new capabilities and enhancing the perceived power of the U.S. at home and abroad.

The U.S. faces growing anti-Americanism in some parts of the world, and as the NASA quote above shows, some believe that manned exploration accomplishments can contribute to bolstering the image of the U.S. abroad. Much as Apollo purported to demonstrate U.S. military superiority over the U.S.S.R. in the cold war, some suggest a new lunar program would demonstrate the cultural superiority of the U.S.

But, will a manned mission to the Moon or Mars really convince rival nations to accept U.S. policy positions?

The U.S. no longer faces competition from a peer rival and the other nations with space capabilities remain allies. In fact, NASA has recently pursued a variety of cooperative missions with international partners, ranging from data sharing on U.S. built craft to cooperative development of mission plans and hardware. The International Space Station now includes major partners from 16 countries, including Japan, Russia, and the E.U. Cooperation with Russia on the ISS program has proved critical to keeping the station supplied and in orbit after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. And cost sharing has reduced the cost of the ISS to the U.S. significantly, as partner nations have provided over a quarter of the station components.

The U.S. now has an opportunity to learn from these successes while framing a new Moon/Mars initiative. Using the successful cooperative models of ISS and science missions such as SOHO and Cassini-Huygens, NASA could direct a combined international effort to explore space. A cooperative program would yield greater benefits than a unilateral attempt by demonstrating a U.S. commitment to the concerns of international partners and lesson perceptions of an American hegemony.

Internationalizing NASA’s “Vision for Space Exploration” also has the potential to engage the Chinese space program which has also announced a manned mission to the Moon, avoiding a costly and unnecessary repeat of a lunar space race.

An international effort also makes sense from a cost and data sharing perspective. Cooperation has allowed nations to pursue projects that they could not afford individually, increased access to space assets and data, and contributed to international diplomacy. Increasing international involvement in the Vision could benefit the policy as a whole, and should be considered now during initial development. For leadership in space to have tangible benefits back home, the U.S. must strive for more than building the biggest rockets.

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