Last night the Fox News Channel ran a one-hour special report entitled Surrendering America. The program focused on four major areas of national interest – ceding control of the Internet, reducing the U.S. military, restricting energy independence and our retreat from space. The overarching theme of the program was national decline. The inclusion of space as a concern drew my attention, as it is not usually viewed by the public as in decline (in large part because media coverage reflects their own lack of understanding and narrow knowledge of the subject). So I was encouraged that the show’s producers viewed space as vital to U.S. national interests and watched to see how they perceived this surrender — the causes and motivations behind it and how they viewed the consequences of this weakened position.
The program was divided into four segments, one for each area of national concern. A five-minute news overview preceded each segment, followed by a four-member panel discussion of each report’s content. Space advocates should take sober notice that the panelists – all well-read, highly regarded Beltway pundits (from both ends of the political spectrum) – appear to be fairly uninformed about many of the space policy issues. But consider: they are representative of the intelligent general public, to whom we wish to convince of the value and importance of space.
All the panelists recognize that we are no longer the space power that we once were, although each had differing views of the causes and importance of such a decline. Kirsten Powers claimed that space spending had to be cut because of our enormous debt/deficit problem. George Will noted that the fiscal demands of the entitlement state are squeezing out all discretionary spending – the category in which the space program falls. Joe Trippi dutifully recited the administration talking points that we are moving forward to asteroid landings and human Mars missions in the 2030s. Charles Krauthammer opined that decline was a choice, not an inevitable fact of life. In his view, our great national wealth and technology base need only be harnessed through visionary leadership, something lacking in the current environment. Although rife with misinformation and an incomplete understanding of some of the issues, in policy terms, these comments bound the national debate (such as it is) about our civil space program.
Consider that some adopt the view that “everything is okay” because there are missions flying (few understand that those missions are running on fumes and were authorized under a previous administration). They believe that unnamed “technologies” will fill in any gaps. This viewpoint mirrors the administration’s declaration that they do have a strategic direction and are implementing it – if only Congress would spend more money on “commercial” space. In fact, commercial space is moving ahead about as fast as it can; they have already missed several milestones on the road to “human-rating” their space vehicles. It is not clear that spending more federal money on this program would result in the advent of a commercial crew transportation system any earlier than is currently planned (ca. 2017, if then). No one on the panel (including the moderator, Bret Baier) mentioned the SLS/Orion program, designed (by Congress) to replace the canceled Constellation system. This launch vehicle and spacecraft is on track to provide a U.S. human cislunar capability sometime after 2020, so we are not totally bereft of any effort to devise a federal transportation system for humans to space.
A more enlightening discussion would have examined NASA’s long-term goals and strategic direction in space. Though alluded to in several places (mostly by Trippi in regard to “human missions to an asteroid”), the panel members are apparently unaware that the administration’s goal has been downsized to studying the concept of hauling a small asteroid back to lunar orbit, where it can be visited by a human crew. Krauthammer mentioned a lunar base and human Mars missions but did not elaborate on their value or difficulty. The sense of the panel seemed to be that our civil space program exists primarily as a symbol of national technical means and greatness – a trivialization of the nation’s space program by both sides of the ideological spectrum (from the left because “we can’t afford it” and from the right because its value is primarily “symbolic”).
Curiously, the major theme developed during the other three segments of the show emphasized their importance to our national security. Security concerns and implications are clearly evident in relinquishing our control of the Internet, reducing our military capabilities and creating self-imposed roadblocks to our energy independence. But their concern for the value of space and our retreat in that arena was seen primarily as being symbolic and not as a practical loss. I do not deny the importance of symbolism, but the space program has always been an integral part of our national defense posture, not only from the direct value of military space (non-NASA) but also from the relevance of our civil space efforts to national security.
NASA missions have blazed the trail to future theaters of operation; these are national concerns vital to defense needs and they have been a well-understood driver of our technical and economic vitality. The value of space assets – communications satellites, GPS, reconnaissance and remote sensing and detection – were all developed in tandem by both military and civil space, with such intertwining that it is impossible to separate the two. The space theater of the future is cislunar space, where most of our satellite assets (critical to military action and economic stability on the Earth) reside. Such satellites are extremely vulnerable and the fact that we currently lack a means to protect and routinely and repeatedly access them is a national security concern of major significance. That this concern was not touched on during the program was striking. It is not enough to know that space is symbolic of our national mood. The nation must also understand that there are concrete negative implications if we retreat in our pursuit of space leadership. Those who are not space powerful are space vulnerable.
As we continue to increase our already heavy reliance on satellite assets in deep space, the need to have the ability to access and use those various locales becomes more acute. The idea that cislunar space can be developed solely by commercial entities is a misguided and myopic conceit of the current leadership. Historically, the federal government (in both military and civil guise) has always been present on the frontier, in tandem and simultaneously with entrepreneurs, miners, farmers and settlers. They are necessary for the protection of those activities and to ensure that national and individual legal norms are served and observed. If we are absent from the cislunar frontier, there is no assurance that free markets, the rule of law and democratic pluralism will be present there. This is the principal reason why a federal agency (who, after all, are nothing more than our proxies in collective and international arenas) must be present in all of the future zones of human activities beyond low Earth orbit.
All of these points about the practical national value of the space program are lost on the current administration and agency leadership (and it must said, also on many in the space community). In their view, the space program is primarily for spectacle – a series of PR stunts designed to amuse the American people, much as the gladiatorial contests of imperial Rome were used to pacify a restless and entitled public. Therefore, they believe that it is optional and disposable. Yes, national greatness is important and the civil space program is a symbol of that greatness (though NASA has been getting an extended ride on the wave of Apollo accomplishments for some time now). But, we keep hearing the proud American boast that America has done all those things that nations such as China, Russia, India and Japan are attempting to do (and are doing) now. We are told that they are just trying to prove themselves in space – joining the club, so to speak (a club in which we have let our membership lapse, so that we now have to buy rides to the ISS on Russian rockets).
The fact that the American space program was considered to be a critical part of a program entitled “Surrendering America” tells you much about where we are as a nation. The concerns outlined in this program are all real and valid, yet incomplete. It is indeed “a surrender” and in this case (as Krauthammer put it), decline is a choice, not an inevitable fact of nature. Kirsten Powers sees our current lack of direction as a mere “pause,” yet it becomes increasingly clear with time that this condition is a planned outcome, not some inadvertent and unintentional development. George Will pointed out a salient fact that most of the others ignored – the human capital of our national space program is dissipating. People have to support their families and cannot wait indefinitely for the problems of our space program to resolve themselves. This is the real reason why Congress mandated a specific design for SLS – this vehicle is not a flight program, but a placeholder, designed to keep at least a nucleus of spaceflight capability together for some future time when new leadership might pick up the broken pieces of a once-great program and attempt to again move us forward in space.
Host Bret Baier concluded by saying that if we are surrendering as a nation, we need to do so with our eyes open and with full knowledge of the consequences of such policies. I applaud Fox News for taking on this topic. Although it was not as complete and as insightful as it could have been, it dramatized our current dilemma in civil space and recognized one salient fact to which many are oblivious: decline creeps in slowly and unobserved. And usually, you don’t realize that what you once had is gone until it is too late to retrieve it. With this surrender of vital national assets, it becomes clear that not only have we been set on a self-crippling path, one that sees us relinquishing personal responsibility within our society, but also one that now accepts that our nation is turning away from collective responsibility for events on the world stage.
Taken individually, the four segments of Surrendering America are disturbing. Taken together, the totality is frightening. By choosing this path, we are willingly giving away our security and in doing so, denying our children their national birthright of freedom and liberty.