Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has opened a wide-ranging conversation about America’s space exploration program. I remember being a young boy and watching with fascination as rockets in the Apollo program lifted off from Cape Canaveral and as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made that giant leap for mankind on the surface of the moon. President John F. Kennedy never got to see the lunar landing, but he set the nation’s sights on the moon and helped establish America’s preeminence in space.
Sadly, by the end of the George W. Bush Administration and during the entirety of Barack Obama’s Administration, America’s space exploration program was all but shut down. Something like that can escape notice for a while, but eventually, the impact will become obvious. Imagine if the Soviets had won the space race! A great deal more than national pride is at risk.
It is high time America reassert its leadership in space. Leaving the cosmos to China would be a catastrophic mistake. The technological, economic, and national security implications are important and very real. To simply cede these matters to China would harm not only the United States, but the rest of the world. The communist Chinese intend to dominate militarily and would love for us to cede this arena to them.
Fortunately, President Donald Trump sees space as an important frontier. Early in our nation’s history, President Thomas Jefferson launched a major exploration of the western half of the North American continent. President Kennedy set in motion America’s successful Apollo 11 lunar landing. Now, President Trump is pushing America towards Mars.
On July 4, earlier this year, President Trump said, “I want you to know that we are going to be back on the moon very soon, and someday soon we will plant the American flag on Mars.” That is a worthy objective and a worthwhile goal!
Landing on Mars and returning safely home again will happen as we reestablish the capability to safely return to the moon. A round trip to Mars is about 18 months. The safety issues are exponentially more complicated than a lunar landing. There is no returning half way once headed to the Red Planet. But once we conquer these challenges, we will again be the clear and undisputed leader in technology and space exploration. That will include valuable economic benefits, obvious technological advancements, and significant national security advantages.
This is a mission worthy of a new generation of American children who dream of becoming astronauts, scientists, and engineers. But there are those who hope to demote NASA into a space agency with small dreams and mundane goals.
For example, Lori Garver, Obama’s NASA Deputy Administrator from 2009 to 2013, has recently wrote an article in the Washington Post arguing that NASA should nix plans to go to Mars and instead make its budget available for more climate science research — something that nearly every other federal agency puts plenty of money towards. According to OMB, the federal government has 19 agencies that funded climate change research to the tune of $13.2 billion in 2017 alone. But Garver sees NASA’s budget and she covets its less than 1/2 of one percent of federal spending. She wants to raid NASA’s budget to fund her own priorities — even more climate change research.
We should all be glad that Garver and her ilk were not around in the 1960’s when President Kennedy was inspiring America to aim for the moon. America needs, and will benefit from, a serious space exploration program.
But people like Ms. Garver are not the only impediment to America’s resurgence into deep space exploration. Newt Gingrich, while supportive of President Trump’s plans to go to Mars, has been advocating for policies that run counter to that goal.
Over the last few years the former Speaker of the House has repeatedly boosted Elon Musk and SpaceX as the future of space travel. From a flurry of tweets lauding the company and its founder, to a series of op-eds, including one where he encourages the government to take on “the role of an investor” in SpaceX, the policies he advocates for in the opinion pages and on social media appear to align with the company’s agenda.
Unfortunately the SpaceX agenda is mostly about getting special concessions and huge subsidies even when it fails to meet contractual benchmarks. While Musk’s prowess in space is questionable, he is a master at public relations campaigns designed to portray him as a forward thinking innovator. But the truth is, Musk is a creature of the D.C. swamp who has succeeded — far less by innovating — than by getting billions in government handouts and subsidies.
Musk’s and SpaceX’s track record on accomplishment and safety are spotty at best. Their delays and failures are commonplace. Yet, they managed to play the Washington swamp game adeptly. As a result, Musk got huge taxpayer provided subsidies for each Tesla he sold and got even larger government provided benefits and subsidies for SpaceX. Musk even managed to get the Obama Administration to pay for contract work that SpaceX failed to deliver on.
I admire Gingrich — I’ve got a photo with him hanging in my office and I signed the Contract with America. But I disagree on his proposed path to Mars that favors Musk’s legacy of failure, delay, and rent seeking. By pinning our deep space exploration hopes on Musk, Gingrich — who has a reputation as being an innovative policy mind — risks miring our space program in the swamp slime and muck that has allowed Musk to make his fortune on the backs of the U.S. taxpayer.
Going to Mars is exponentially more difficult than landing on the moon. It presents a great deal more safety challenges. Musk has proven over the past decade that safety is not his concern. In fact, he seems to view safety as a bother. Our policy makers should take this into consideration when deciding how we will take our astronauts back to the moon and beyond.
The truth is, America already has a capable new rocket that dwarfs the capabilities of the Saturn V rockets that took our astronauts to the moon. The Space Launch System will be online and ready later this year. As with any attempt to design and build something that has never been done before, the Space Launch System had some challenges. Guess what? The Apollo program had many challenges too. Even Lewis and Clark’s mission had challenges and cost overruns. When something has never been done before, developing it isn’t like buying a Betty Crocker cake mix and baking it in the oven.
Real and robust competition pushes all participants to perform their best. But SpaceX has so far been able to avoid real competition. Without any real requirement that it ultimately succeed, SpaceX has been a technological failure, even while Musk has managed a public relations success and gotten paid based on his public relations campaign, more than actual accomplishment. To make it to Mars we must encourage real competition, not Elon Musk’s fake version of competition where he gets paid regardless of what he produces.
Returning to the moon and then going on to Mars is a worthy goal and the right objective! But it won’t happen if NASA becomes just another federal agency studying climate change. And it won’t happen if Elon Musk is able to co-opt the process as he did during the Obama years. Musk’s life goal appears to be famous and rich. But America needs to make it our goal to go to Mars and bring our astronauts safely home again.