Nov. 1, 2003

BY JOHN McHALE, Executive Editor
Military & Aerospace Electronics

Manned space exploration not only makes sense economically for the future of America's space program, but also for our nation's security. Recent events in the international community have made this perfectly clear.

The successful launch of China's first manned space mission has brought an element of competition to America's space program that has been missing for far too long. Competition in space, whether for financial rewards on Earth or to protect vital military interests, was the catalyst behind the American space program's success in its golden years.

However, NASA's current manned space program has not garnered the same accolades and accomplishments of America's first Space pioneers 30 and 40 years ago. This has lead some, including our chief editor, John Keller, in this space last month, to advocate shelving the manned space program for cheaper unmanned missions. While Keller's assumptions favoring unmanned exploration are practical and seem to make sense on the surface, under closer analysis I believe they are inherently flawed.

He failed to take into consideration how competition combined with public support is necessary not only for the future of manned space programs, but also for the future of space exploration itself.

In his argument he overlooked the main reason the manned space program was able to succeed in the past — it had strong support from its customer base, the American people. Unfortunately, the public lost interest in the manned space program; to them, sending humans into space aboard the space shuttle became too familiar to generate interest and led them to forget how dangerous those missions are.

This lack of public pressure resulted in smaller and smaller NASA budgets during the 1990s and, as Keller said, eventually caused NASA officials to cut corners where safety and system reliability were concerned, tragically culminating in the explosion of the Shuttle Columbia.

However, public interest will not be improved by shutting down the manned space program in favor of safer, unmanned missions. Space-exploring machines, while technological wonders, don't hold a candle to the appeal of flesh-and-blood all-American astronauts, heroes that inspire young and old worldwide.

So, how do we continue the peaceful exploration of space without the enthusiastic support of the American public?

Keller is basically saying NASA should do the minimum, send off the robots and keep our flag planted until the market comes around. Maybe so, but why should NASA be the final answer on whether or not manned space missions are feasible and practical?

Let's be blunt. The only way America will ever attain the glories it achieved in space 30 and 40 years ago is if manned space exploration becomes a competition — either among commercial companies in our own country or with another nation.

The first scenario makes a lot of sense—letting American business bid for government money to create their own spacecraft, thereby fostering that spirit of competition that spurred many of America's accomplishments in medicine and science.

Robert Zimmerman, author of Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel wrote recently in USA Today that Congress should bypass NASA and start handing space exploration contracts directly to private industry. He states that during NASA's glory years of the 1960s and early 1970s, commercial companies accomplished most of the real work being done.

During the heady days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, Zimmerman says NASA officials would lay out "general specifications for competing private companies, which quickly and cheaply produce new rockets, capsules, and lunar landers, hoping that the government would buy their" products for years. However, Zimmerman claims NASA did away with this practice, instead using the money to grow its "bloated bureaucracy."

Zimmerman's argument makes a lot of sense. For the U.S. to develop new manned spacecraft at a "reasonable cost" it needs to turn it over to American business and let competition and free enterprise solve many of the economic concerns. The readers of Military & Aerospace Electronics know better than anyone what the technological and business resources of this country can accomplish, evidenced by the overwhelming technological superiority of our military.

The second competition scenario I mentioned may force Congress to adopt the first scenario and most certainly will make Keller's unmanned arguments irrelevant. Cheaper, robotic missions are easy to argue for when it's only the U.S. and some friends playing in the galactic sandbox, but somewhat naïve when a communist rival, China, starts sending manned military missions into orbit around the Earth.

Now the competition, like it was during the Cold War, is for real with much higher stakes.

Competition with communist nations for space accomplishments has fueled the public's interest in the space program dating back to the late 1950s and early 1960s when the Soviet Union was topping us every time. It was the main influence behind President John F. Kennedy's challenge to get to the moon before the end of the '60s.

The Soviets didn't even have to launch a mission to influence American plans. According to the book Lost Moon by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, competition with the Soviets forced the Americans to accelerate their space exploration plans again in the summer of 1968. At that time, Lovell and Kluger write, there were major problems with the first lunar landing module and CIA agents had uncovered information:

"Coming from the Baikonur Cosmodrome that the Soviet Union was making tentative plans for a flight around the moon by a Zond spacecraft sometime before the end of the year. Nobody knew if the flight would be manned, but the Zond line was certainly capable of carrying a crew, and if a decade of getting sucker-punched by Soviet space triumphs had indicated anything, it was that when Moscow had even the possibility of pulling off a space coup, you could bet they'd give it a try."

NASA officials originally did not want to approach the moon until the lunar module was ready, but the news about the Soviets forced them to decide to shoot for moon orbit with Apollo 8 and its crew of Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders.

Now, once again the U.S. may be facing competition from another country in space. But let's face reality. The competition isn't just over technological achievements in space, it's about military advantage as well.

While technically not an enemy, China is definitely not a bosom buddy. I'm quite sure there is a mantra among Chinese government officials that what is good for the U.S. isn't good for China and vice versa.

As of this writing, The Washington Times is reporting that China's first manned space mission also was a spy mission because it placed a reconnaissance satellite in orbit from the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft.

China's "space assets will play a major role in any use of force against Taiwan and in preventing foreign intervention," The Times quoted Lt. Col. Mark Stokes, director of the Taiwan desk at the Pentagon, in a speech Sept. 30. The Times story continues, "It is working to develop networks of satellites that will be used for spying and communications for the military, he said. Stokes also said that the Chinese have shown 'significant indications' of developing space weapons, such as satellite-killing missiles and satellites and lasers that can disable U.S. military and intelligence satellites," he said.

Military planners are obviously looking at scenarios that have Chinese military bases on the moon or in orbit around the Earth during the next 20 to 30 years, potentially creating what no rational, peaceful-minded person wants to see — Earth's international squabbles and wars making space the next battleground.

I hope and pray that this situation never comes to pass, that America can work with the Chinese in space like we do today with the Russians. However, current international conditions lead me to believe otherwise.

So let's make sure our leaders are smart and use the tremendous advantage we have with our electronic and technological industrial base to keep America ahead in the space race. It is in the interest of national security to do so. It's dangerous enough traveling beyond the atmosphere without having to worry about stepping into a war zone.

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