TCS Daily

Space Race for 2002

By James Pinkerton - December 31, 2001 12:00 AM

OK, 2001 was no "2001," but there was more good news than bad news. The movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," was re-released this year, just to torment us spacers with visions of what could have been. The Stanley Kubrick/Arthur C. Clarke film, first released in 1968, offered a bright vision of humanity shuttling back and forth to the moon, even as it prepared a deep-space journey to Jupiter.

Well, that didn't happen. The space program went into political recession in the early '70s, the victim of a Greenish anti-technological backlash, and it's never really recovered; the last man went to the moon in 1972, and trips to other planets are mere pipedream gleams. But the basic impulse of human expansion, the inevitable extension of mankind's reach across physical distance -- first land, then water, then air -- gives space an ultimate, inexorable logic.

But of course, as with true love, the course of true logic never runs smooth. And yet amidst the bumps and bubbles, it's possible for spaceniks to lay out a vision for spacewardness, a synergistic approach that seeks to connect the efforts of three different, mostly unconnected groups. While those three groups - NASA, the Russians, and the U.S. military - might never all work in the closest of harmony, they might yet complement each other as part of an overall space strategy. Indeed, we might take a leaf from a scene in the new Russell Crowe movie "A Beautiful Mind," in which the mathematician John Nash looks into the night sky and identifies intricate images amidst the clouds of stars, seeing images where others saw jumbles. Of course, I shouldn't pursue this analogy too far, because the march into space needs leaders, not just dreamers. So returning now, to the real world, let's consider where the three leading space players stood at the end of 2001.

NASA -- The biggest single piece of news was the departure of Administrator Dan Goldin. He will be remembered as a brilliant man who had all the right attributes, including patience, as he was in the post for 9 ½ years, across three presidential administrations. But he was unable to re-energize America's space consciousness. And so instead of leading America into new quantums of space travel, as he knew how to do, Goldin mostly played defense against critics and nit-picks.

Goldin's replacement as NASA boss, Sean O'Keefe, confirmed by the Senate on December 20, was previously deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bush. He had served as secretary of the Navy for the first President Bush where, the Associated Press reports, he "gained a reputation for budget cutting." O'Keefe's views on space are mostly unknown, but in Congressional testimony he did say that "the immediate challenges confronting NASA today are, largely, not scientific, technical or engineering in origin. Rather, the challenges are more aptly described in management terms: financial, contractual and personnel focused." O'Keefe wasn't wrong, of course - there's never an argument to be made for sloppy practices - but it remains to be seen whether he will see number-crunching as an end it itself, or as a springboard for future leaps.

The International Space Station is likely to be an early indicator. The ISS has cost America some $5 billion more than anticipated, and pressure is mounting to scale back NASA's commitment, such that, for example, the size of the permanent ISS crew would he held down to three. Since it takes 2 ½ people to do essential maintenance on the orbiter, a three-person limit would mean that not even a single person would be aloft to do the sort of research for which the ISS was originally intended. And in that case, friends of the space station would be hard-pressed to defend the ISS against the green-eyeshade accusation that all that money has been spent merely to maintain three astro-maintenance workers. What's needed, of course, is the financial commitment to expand the ISS to its full capacity, housing a crew of six or seven, such that the station could be a full-fledged platform for forthcoming steps into space. What's needed, in other words, is a vision longer than the current fiscal year or two.

The Russians -- It's an irony of history that when the Russians were Reds, they saw space as an expression of communist destiny. Now, post-Soviet, the same Russians see space as an opportunity for capitalist profitability. And yet at the same time, the capitalist Americans have been resistant to any such private-sectoring of human space travel. NASA, it seems, is still locked in a bureaucratic and anti-entrepreneurial prison. So American Dennis Tito, snubbed by NASA, made space-capitalist history last spring by paying $20 million to be the first private citizen to buy his way into space. In 2002, yet another tycoon, the South African Mark Shuttleworth, plans to blaze a second trail.

To be sure, the Russians don't have the billions needed to build customer-friendly spacegoing vehicles, but they do have the expertise. And so it's possible to squint ahead into the next century and see the Russians attracting capital from the West to finance more ambitious ventures into space travel and tourism. Keep an eye on Sir Richard Branson; he has the showy flare needed to make such a vision a reality, and he's not likely to worry much about whose rockets he rides.

The U.S. military -- If the Russians are discovering the virtues of the invisible hand, Americans might yet discover the value of the visible hand - not NASA's, but rather, the U.S. military's steel fist. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld has always understood that space would be a theater of military operations, whether the U.S. wants it to be or not. And so he has taken bold steps to make sure that if space is to be militarized, America will be a winner, not a loser.

Rumsfeld's two commission reports, the first in 1998, concerning missile defense, and the second in 2001, concerning satellite defense, both warned against Pearl Harbor-like attacks, pointing the Pentagon toward a more robust space presence. Since then, of course, America has been reminded of the need to expect the unexpected, to prepare as best we can. Now that Rumsfeld has spearheaded the winning of the battle against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, he confronts the mission of winning the war against proliferating future threats, from land, sea, air -- and space.

The American withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty was a good first step, one that opens the way toward better defenses based anywhere. But even more bold moves are needed, because dangers don't come just from rogue individuals and rogue states, but also from rogue nature.

For example, there's the statistically inevitable danger of a "deep impact" on the earth. And in this case, a hit anywhere on the planet could be devastating everywhere. Congress has charged NASA with identifying Near Earth Objects (NEO's) that could come crashing down upon us, creating another "extinction-level event" like the one that did in the dinosaurs. So far, scientists around the world have identified some 500 NEO's; they figure that at least that many more remain to be discovered. Yet the budget-conscious space agency now proposes to cut its contribution to the maintenance of the radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. That 305-meter-wide facility receives most of its $11 million annual budget from the National Science Foundation, but NASA, as first reported in, wants to shrink its contribution from $550,000 to $400,000. The scientists at Arecibo are not seeking to identify NEO's flying around, but rather to identify their composition once found. Such understanding, of course, would be critical in the formulation of effective counter-measures. NASA concedes the importance of this mission; in the words of associate administrator Ed Weiler, "Before you send Bruce Willis with a bunch of nukes, you better know what these things are made out of." Weiler was referring, of course, to "Armageddon," the 1998 movie in which astronauts blow up an asteroid before it can blow up the earth.

Yet if NASA doesn't have the money for such an ongoing necessary effort, life-saving -- indeed, planet-saving -- as the asteroid-spotting mission might be, maybe the Pentagon should step in. After all, the name "Department of Defense" is comprehensive; it doesn't single out what should be defended against and what shouldn't. And so the presumption could be made that DOD should protect against every threat, at least if nobody else can or will do it. After all, the Pentagon already has a formal Space Command, based at Peterson AFB in Colorado; it makes sense for the military to have this avant-garde element of "homeland defense" in its portfolio.

So the Pentagon should be regarded as a key space player, alongside the more familiar American and Russian space agencies. What's it called when three different entities think about achieving the same goal? It's called competition. And that's what's needed today: healthy competition, so that the idea of racing gets put back into the space race. If Americans and Russians, in and out of uniform, start racing into space, all humanity will be the winners, and 2002 will see all of us getting ever closer to the stars our destination.


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