Space Exploration Is Politics By Another Means

Today’s the 50th anniversary of the successful launch of a bucket of bolts and radio transmitters, Sputnik 1. So of course, I have cause to think about manned spaceflight in a grander context than, say, my normal day-to-day activities. [Why yes, we’re due to deliver a carrier next week, and I’m stressed out as a result. Why do you ask?] The thought that I had this morning is a simple one: space exploration is politics by another means.

If that phrase rings a bell with you, you’ve probably read your Clausewitz. In Vom Kriege [On War], Clausewitz argues for a dialectical approach to studying warfare, famously arguing, “War is merely a continuation of politics.” Any American who’s thought about the Iraq War for longer than five minutes can appreciate this statement, as our politicians play politics with American and Iraqi lives on a daily basis. But when I look at the spacefaring nations of this world, I see the very same thing. Sputnik, as a program, was part of a Soviet vanguard to win the Space Race. The world knows that the Space Race was declared won by the United States when we landed Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. [Or, if you’re a moon landing conspiracy theorist, when everyone declared the jig up. If you will, raise your hand and hold it high so Buzz knows who to come by and punch in the nose. Thanks.] That said, America winning the Space Race has not ended space exploration as politics, any moreso than World War I really ended all war.

At the close of 1969, there were two spacefaring powers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Now there are about a dozen, all told, and a handful of those actually have manned spaceflight programs. There are still only two competent manned spaceflight launch authorities—NASA and the Russian Space Agency—but many nations have expended resources in putting their citizens in space. Why? Sending people to space tells your populace and the world that you mean business. Why else would China be trying to return to the moon late next decade, almost a half-century after it was first explored by twelve Americans? The only rational argument, in my thinking, is that manned spaceflight is still politics by another means.

Obviously I, as a NASA contractor and a beneficiary of U.S. government spending on manned spaceflight, am biased in this matter. But I am glad that America has not completely laid down in our quest to explore space as an expression of the quality of our nation. We’re the nation that arguably does manned spaceflight the best—which is not to say that we do it particularly well. There are many challenges to manned spaceflight, most of which I’m quite keenly aware of as I live through them every single day. But it seems clear to me that American space exploration is still politically-oriented—and I’m just fine with that.

To close, let me present an example and a thought going forward. The International Space Station is many things; one of the things that it is presently is a jobs program for Russian rocket scientists. Keeping the RSA flying—and make no mistake; without American funds, there is no RSA—keeps Russian rocket jockeys from hiring their estimable services out to the highest bidder. One need only consider the local nations [Iran, North Korea, et al] who would seek Russian support for their nefarious rocket-related activities. After all, Sputnik was as much a signal that the Russians could drop a nuke into Washington, D.C., as it was a celebration of the International Geophysical Year. And while this is distasteful, as it takes away from the idea of ISS-as-science-platform, I also believe that ISS is a reality only because we needed to keep those Russian fellas busy. After all, Space Station Freedom never exactly went anywhere.

As for the forward thinking, I welcome the entry of the Chinese Space Program into the realm of manned spaceflight. All you need to know about American political feelings about the Chinese program is the stern objections the federal government gave when China requested docking abilities at ISS. The Chinese seem willing to go it alone for now, plowing the fields previously plowed by the United States and the Soviet Union: capsules, small, short-duration space stations, etc. As our space privatization friends like to note, a little competition never hurt anyone, and the Chinese? They’re gonna be great competition. Heck, they may push us better than the Soviets did.

Ad astra per aspera.