Perego: In Search of the Missing Space Link

President Donald Trump receives a NASA flight jacket after signing the NASA Transition Authorization Act in March 2017. (Official White House photo by Paul Williams.)

For decades the United States has enjoyed boasting its status as the “leader of the free world.” Although we do in fact have one of the largest militaries, and an exceptionally high GDP per capita, the United States ranks amongst the lowest countries in terms of scientific literacy.

We have long lost our role as a leader on scientific issues such as the environment and space exploration.

During the 1960s the U.S. rightfully boasted its technological and scientific prowess. During this decade, we put men on the moon. Out of nothing, it was determined we would push the envelope as no one had done before. The American people were enthralled by this excitement and watched with bated breath as Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong descended onto the surface of a foreign celestial body.

The greatest minds were put to the test to achieve this feat and from months of testing and engineering they presented the Saturn V rocket. This 138ft long, 6.2 million pound vehicle would transform us into an extra-planetary species, bringing men to the lunar surface not once, but six times.

Without the technology and support from the country, the whole program would have come toppling down. During the 1960s and 70s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, had each of those necessities in excess.

It would not have been cemented in our culture however if not for the famous words of President John F. Kennedy:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Although President Kennedy framed our lunar endeavors as a reflection of our American spirit, a new age Manifest Destiny into the stars, the Space Race was in actuality an arms race.

When American suburban housewives and children looked overhead and watched in fear as the Soviet Sputnik flew overhead, the US interpreted this as a literal shot across the bow, and therefore we responded in the only way we know how – in excess. In fact, none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a five-star Army General during WWII, saw the military importance of NASA and therefore oversaw its founding in 1958, less than a year after Sputnik was launched into orbit.

In many ways, NASA dug its own grave by achieving its goals. By establishing a presence on the moon, NASA had gained the strategic high-ground and showed its true strength in the campaign for space.

This, paired with the fact that by keeping up with us, the Soviet Union had depleted its resources and its economy began to crumble, it was obvious that there would not be a future enemy in space, and therefore NASA fell to near irrelevancy.

Once NASA had served its military purpose, the political will dwindled, and so did NASA’s budget.

The administration’s budget in 1969 (the year the Apollo 11 landed) accounted for 2.31 percent of the United States’ budget. In 2017, the U.S. Congress gave NASA 0.47 percent.

The explorative American spirit that NASA helped create, whether it was through propaganda or not, was real, and maintains its hold on many of the hearts and minds of America’s youth.

Popular political thought does not see space exploration as the opportunity that it is. Americans still switch on the TV and show up in droves to watch the latest rocket launch. Kids still dress up as astronauts and play with toy rockets. Technology is still advancing, albeit slower now without government support. The time is right for a redirection of our interest into space.

So how can we change this?

At this year’s International Conference for Sustainable Development (ICSD) the Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), Erik Solheim, defined the problems associated with sustainable development and climate change as having three legs: citizen support and activity, visionary political leadership, and business-led technology innovation. I, however, would add another leg: data-driven evidence.

Graphic created by Thoren Perego

Without these three pillars, any wide-scale progress is impossible. Whether it be climate change, net neutrality, healthcare, space exploration, or any other ambitious project. I argue however that not all of these pillars are equally important.

It has been demonstrated that time and time again, if you do not have visionary political leadership, nothing can be done on a national, or even state level, not to mention internationally. Space exploration is a perfect example of this.

Although it has been decades since man was last beyond near-Earth orbit, the American public is still fascinated by space, and strive to go beyond.

Scientists are waiting on the edge of their seats to attempt to answer some of our biggest questions about space, they just need the funding. The data shows that investing in NASA not only provides positive scientific effects, but social and economic ones as well.

Given that every dollar invested in NASA results in $10 into the economy, what are we waiting for?

The technology is available to get us to the moon, and possibly to Mars as well. Remember that man set foot on the moon a mere eleven years after NASA was even created. If we do not have the technology now, we certainly have the mental capacity to create it.

We can see that things are ripe for an explosion in space exploration, the constituency supports it, the technology is available or easily could be, and there is data-driven evidence pointing to clear positive outcomes to investing in NASA. But where is the visionary political leadership?

In the 1960s, this leadership was driven by fear. Fear is not a sustainable development model. Currently, scientists are wringing their wrists, wondering where they will find the funding to answer deep and profound questions about the universe and our place in it.

People across America ask why we gave up on space, with no sufficient reply. Leaders in technology are wanting to innovate and create, with no outlet for their work. All of these groups are disjointed and disgruntled.

In a recent TEDx salon event at the Jacksonville Museum of Science and History (MOSH) about “Rediscovering Space,” panelists including scientists currently working NASA’s Orion and Commercial Crew projects, as well as astrophysicist and Made in Space CEO Andrew Rush all agreed that the government should step up on space policy.

So how can we change this? We need to gather these voices together and either create political leaders or persuade political leaders.

Political campaign platforms feature all of the “hot topics” for voters. Jobs, foreign policy, the economy, immigration, and maybe the environment. They do this because it is what voters expect from a political campaign. The American public needs to do a better job at telling these political leaders that they expect them to have a position on space travel.

We need to ask questions.

Ask if they would consider cutting or expanding NASA’s budget. Ask if they believe space exploration should be tackled by private or public industry. A conversation needs starting to make it a political priority.

Politics is the missing piece to space exploration. Currently, it is the only thing stopping us, but it can also be the one thing to propel us to become not just an extraterrestrial species, but an interplanetary species as well.

On December 11, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the White House Space Policy Directive 1, supposedly reinforcing the White House’s commitment to space exploration.

According to the directive, Trump is focusing on bringing humans back to the moon in a more permanent state, with hopes for Mars exploration in the future. It will be a highly collaborative effort, combining public and private sectors, as well as international partnerships.

Will this be the kick in the butt space exploration needs?

I am both hopeful and weary by this announcement. Much like his horribly ill-made decision to shrink both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments, I fear this new step towards space is likewise driven solely by business interests and not necessarily a manifestation of our natural drive to explore and learn.

Hope is not enough. By creating political leaders passionate about space, starting conversations with current representatives, and asking questions, we can create the final leg needed for space exploration.

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