Eileen Collins’ address before the Republican National Committee lasted four minutes and concerned her thoughts on restoring American leadership in #Space. Implicit in her remarks is the idea that the space program needs to become, using the Donald Trump campaign slogan, “great again.” Space reporter Eric Berger takes Collins to task in Ars Technica, suggesting that the vibrant commercial sector has already made America “great” in space. He also accuses her of pining for the days of Apollo, a curious slam considering how successful the moon landing program was.
The attitude is that Apollo garnered so much scientific discovery and international prestige for the United States and, according to some economic analysis, more than paid for itself when technological spinoffs and economic stimuli are taken into account, therefore we should never do that again.
Berger’s piece is well worth reading. But has America lost its leadership in space? Is America already great in space? The answer is a mixed bag at least.
In the area of robotic space exploration, America is without peer. No other country in the world has rovers on Mars, probes orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, and a probe that flew by Pluto in 2015.
On crewed space, in 2016, Collins is correct, however. Two countries, Russia and China, are capable of sending people into space. America lost that capability when the space shuttle program ended in 2011, as Collins pointed out. It will not regain that ability until 2018 when the first commercial crew vehicles are scheduled to start plying to and from the International Space Station.
Has the commercial space sector made America “great” in space as Berger suggests? It likely will, but not yet. SpaceX and Boeing are not sending people into space on their publicly funded but privately operated spacecraft. Moon Express and Planetary Resources are not yet mining the high frontier for its riches. In the future, the commercial space sector will be a source of wealth and greatness, but that time has not yet arrived.
The question of whether America is great in space or not may be the wrong one. The better question is could America be even greater than it already is?
What if, instead of trying to jam the end of Constellation down the throats of Congress, President Barack Obama had gathered the stakeholders of the program in Congress and aerospace sector together to hammer out a solution? The resulting policy would certainly be stronger with a wider buy in.
But, instead of dealing with alternate history, we have to look to the future. Berger hopes that Donald Trump, being a businessman, would recognize the benefits of capitalism in space. The approach seems to have been incorporated in the #Republican Party platform which endorses public/private partnerships in space. It could be that the first people back to the moon will be a mixed crew of NASA and commercial astronauts there to set up a mining base. That would be huge.