Leadership by Default: The United States and the Final Frontier

Article excerpt

The United States' leadership in space is a natural result of its high standing among the world's democracies and its vast wealth, which enables it to spend more than US$35 billion annually on civil and national security space activity, far surpassing all other nations. NASA's manned space shuttle, representing tens of billions of dollars of investment, embodied US leadership in space. It was the foundation on which the International Space Station, the largest and most complex undertaking in space, was built. The shuttle's retirement, while leaving the Space Station partners entirely dependent on Russia for crew access in the short term, has not fundamentally changed the United States' position in the partnership, nor has it left a leadership void that another nation is eager or in a position to fill. Contrary to what many casual observers seem to believe, the United States is not abandoning human spaceflight. Rather, it is between astronaut-launching systems with NASA continuing to drive this activity.

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Currently there is great uncertainty surrounding the US human spaceflight program, the result of a political battle touched off when President Barack Ohama proposed handing astronaut transportation to and from low Earth orbit destinations--in other words, the Space Station--to the private sector, and having NASA focus on technologies for deep-space exploration. The dramatic policy shift raised no objections from NASA's traditional international partners in civil space. The European Space Agency (ESA), for example, which felt shut out of the previous president's plan to return astronauts to the moon, welcomed the new policy espoused by President Obama. However congressional reaction was decidedly swift and negative. US lawmakers had embraced former President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, in part because the resulting hardware development program, dubbed Constellation, promised to absorb the workforce attached to the shuttle, which was marked for retirement. Without a similar promise from Obama, lawmakers from states with large NASA facilities or constituencies, suspicious of Obama's intentions and skeptical of the emerging commercial spaceflight industry, blocked Constellation's dismantling even before it was formally proposed. They then came up with their own plan, codified in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which restored key elements of the Bush program. Caught in the middle, NASA is now pursuing separate programs with insufficient funding to properly execute either, and no strategy that pulls them together to serve larger national objectives.

Things are equally unsettled in robotic space exploration, an increasingly important sphere of international cooperation where NASA enjoys a tremendous technological lead over other space agencies. NASA in 2009 signed on as a partner with ESA in a Mars exploration campaign dubbed ExoMars but a budget crisis has forced the US agency to scale back its involvement, prompting Europe to court Russia as a full-fledged partner. NASA has also declared a moratorium on flagship class probes--like the recently launched, US$2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory rover--and thus abandoned tentative plans to work with Europe on its next large science mission, concepts for which included an ambitious survey of Jupiter and its ice-covered moon, Europa.

Anatomy of a Partnership

But until 2020, at least, there is the Space Station, a partnership that includes, in addition to the United States, the 19 nations comprising ESA, along with Russia, Japan, and Canada. Conceived during the 1980s by the administration of then-US President Ronald Reagan, the station was a massive undertaking, with the roles of each partner spelled out in agreements painstakingly negotiated among the governments involved. During the 1990s, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, was invited to join as part of a US policy of engaging the former Soviet Union and its still-formidable military-industrial complex. …