In today’s era of $14 trillion budget deficits, $18 billion seems like chump change. But with every penny of federal spending on the chopping block, that amount is eye-catching.
NASA needs that money over the next five years to build its new space launch system —a behemoth rocket that would eventually carry our astronauts to Mars. The rocket will be topped with a space capsule similar to Apollo, which carried Americans to the moon and back 40 years ago.
The new rocket will be tested in an unmanned flight in 2017, with the first manned flight four years later — if everything goes well and the president and Congress supply the cash.
While NASA needs $18 billion to launch the program’s first test flight, that doesn't include later costs for building a fleet of rockets, modernizing launch facilities, upgrading manned capsules and providing astronauts with spacecraft able to land on future destinations. The program’s total price tag is currently estimated at $35 billion, and an accelerated program could cost more than $60 billion.
So why spend the money at all?
First, over the decades, the U.S. space program has solidified America’s leadership role in the world, fostered incredible advances in science and technology, produced thousands of innovations and products we use in our daily lives, and inspired millions of American youth to pursue careers in science and math.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden emphasizes those points today, just as President Dwight Eisenhower used the Soviet launch of Sputnik to call for improving the nation’s math and science education. Bolden believes that space exploration highlights the need to improve our country’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning programs.
Second, our nation has a clear lead in space. When other nations are emphasizing innovation and attracting research and development, America already has the space technology and R&D here.
But our leadership is by no means assured.
China unveiled a national innovation initiative five years ago and is pouring billions into it. The government space initiative pre-dates the innovation emphasis, and since 1992, it has invested almost $5.5 billion in its manned space program.
Today, the Jiuquan Launch Center in China's Gobi Desert is a beehive of activity, and the Chinese plan to establish their own space station by 2020.
Last week, China launched its Tiangong-1 space module, which paves the way for its first rendezvous and docking mission. An unmanned Shenzhou VIII spaceship will be launched in November to dock with Tiangong-1 and two more missions are scheduled for next year before astronauts will board Tiangong-1, which will also function as a space lab.
America will have to spend money to stay ahead in the space race, and it will need private partnerships. Federal appropriations will be difficult, but space is not only a commercial lab but a military necessity. Think about the guidance systems in our smart bombs, missiles and drones. They work because of positioning satellites, which are a direct spinoff of our space program.
Lastly, reaching beyond our planet to the stars has long been part of our greatness as a nation.
In 1957, America was caught flat-footed by the launch of the Soviet orbiter. Realizing the impact on America’s image in the world, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy galvanized the nation to regain its leadership role by putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade — a goal we achieved on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
The moon landing was followed by the building of the International Space Station and the launch of the Hubble telescope that literally opened a new window on the universe.
Do we as a nation still aspire to greatness in space and beyond? As President Kennedy said in 1961, “While we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.” About the Author
Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business. Formed in 1904, the Association of Washington Business is Washington’s oldest and largest statewide business association, and includes more than 7,500 members representing 650,000 employees. AWB serves as both the state’s chamber of commerce and the manufacturing and technology association. While its membership includes major employers like Boeing, Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser, 90 percent of AWB members employ fewer than 100 people. More than half of AWB’s members employ fewer than 10. For more about AWB, visit www.awb.org.