Saturday, April 12, 2008

More than the Moon

December 1972: Gene Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon, back inside the Apollo 17 Lunar Module after that last EVA - NASA image by Senator Harrison Schmidt

Washington Times April 11: Editorial by Eric Sterner - When he left his footprints at the edge of the Sea of Serenity in 1972, Gene Cernan became the last man on the moon. By the time he departed, spending on the civil space program had already peaked for a simple reason. In 1969 the United States won the space race, demonstrating the American commitment to peaceful exploration of space and the technological superiority of its political and economic system.

America's civil space program has always served a broad international agenda. The Apollo-Soyuz linkup of 1975 had more to do with détente than the exploration and development of space. Russia's successes in orbiting space stations created a perception that they "owned" low earth orbit, leading President Reagan to launch a U.S. station program, inviting allied democracies to join. Again, the civil space program would contrast freedom and tyranny, capitalism and communism.

Ironically, human spaceflight's international visibility probably saved it from near extinction when the Clinton administration invited Russia to join the station program, symbolizing Russia's emergence as a democracy. More practically, it enabled the administration to provide significant indirect aid to the Russian aerospace industry in the hope of turning it away from proliferation activities.

This year, during its 50th anniversary, the space program finds itself at a crossroads. In 2004, President Bush announced a plan to return Americans to the moon and send them to Mars. The vision has since been codified in statute and reinforced through national policy, but finds itself under-funded, over-constrained, and subjected to programmatic second-guessing. The presidential campaigns viewed it through the lens of job impacts in key electoral states. Nevertheless, due to its international visibility, the space program is intimately tied to the reality and perceptions of America's global leadership. To ignore this and focus merely on the programs, or parochially on the jobs, is to underestimate the importance of space exploration.

The space program has long contributed to the development of new technologies and created opportunities for scientific research. President Bush's science advisor noted that "the technology development necessary to carry out this vision will accelerate advances in robotics, autonomous and fault tolerant systems, human-machine interface, materials, life support systems, and spur novel applications of nanotechnology and micro-devices." More generally, a reinvigorated space program stimulates professional education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — critical to the long-term competitiveness and national security of the United States. Returning to the moon will replace the retiring generation of scientists and engineers inspired by Apollo. The nature of science and technology mean that those benefits eventually make their way to everyone on Earth, but they accrue primarily to the states creating and deploying the technologies. Thus, the United States has a practical interest in international leadership.

Unlike Apollo, which wore the label "made in the USA," the new space exploration program is designed to accommodate and welcome international participation. By inviting other states to join it, the United States demonstrates a commitment to their progress and well-being. It encourages them to commit their resources to peaceful scientific and technological activity and demonstrates the positive value of following America's lead. It can do so in a framework that will also transmit U.S. values, including respect for the rationality, transparency, and openness that successful scientific and technical cooperation demands. Finally, successful execution can build confidence in American leadership. In short, the high visibility of returning to the moon offers an opportunity to build the kind of "soft-power" that serves America's long-term national interests.

The reverse is also true. Having made the commitment, laid out a plan, and started to develop capabilities, changes in direction can only send a message of American inconstancy. Procrastination, especially for short-term budget considerations, can only undermine faith in American leadership and priority setting. Failure to execute can only send a message of incompetence.

Amidst the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, planting the flag on the moon reminded the world that the United States possessed a depth of spirit, wealth, ingenuity, and technical prowess that made it a leader still worth following. In 1972, Gene Cernan proclaimed, "we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I'd just like to record that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow." Today, many ask whether those words are still true. Returning will prove them so.

Eric R. Sterner held senior staff positions on the House Armed Services and Science Committees and served in the office of the secretary of defense and as associate deputy administrator for policy and planning at NASA.

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