April 17, 2013
A wavering U.S. space policy, now loosely focused on the human exploration of Near Earth Objects and Mars, is failing to serve traditional U.S. national security interests, two longtime Washington policymakers asserted in remarks before a Washington Council on Foreign Relations forum.
The Moon is a more suitable focus, one that does not come at too high a price for NASA’s traditional international partners, nor too great a technical challenge for those who may wish to engage it over the long term — Asia’s rising space powers, China and India, according to Robert Walker, former chair of what is now the House Science, Space and Technology Committee; and Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
Those interests include security for U.S. military space assets through an absence of anti-satellite weaponry and mitigation of space debris; opportunities for an emerging U.S. commercial space sector and scientific advancement; as well as a revived youthful interest in the science and engineering fields.
NASA is devolving into a jobs program as a result of a wavering focus, charged Walker, a former Republican lawmaker who leads Wexler and Walker, a Washington lobbying firm, and served as chair of the George W. Bush administration-era Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry.
“A lot of the people in Congress who take an interest in space do so because they have a facility in their district, or they have some particular reason to be involved with it,” said Walker as part of an April 15 CFR presentation, The Future of U.S. Space Policy. “That has been a trend that has come along over a period of time. As a result, the ability to get a sense of direction is limited by people who say, ‘I’m all for doing a new program. What is my center going to get out of this?’”
President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget request, presented to Congress on April 10, features a $105 million down payment on a yet-to-be-priced initiative to identify and robotically corral a small asteroid close to the Moon, where U.S. astronauts launched aboard NASA’s Space Launch System/Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle could begin explorations as soon as 2021. The revision to a three-year-old directive from Obama that NASA reach a more distant asteroid with astronauts by 2025 as a stepping stone to the eventual human exploration of Mars folds in new strategies for dealing with the collision threat posed by asteroids and comets.
However, the veer away from the Bush administration’s Moon/Mars focus, forged with Congress in the wake of the 2003 shuttle Columbia tragedy, has left NASA seemingly dysfunctional, many on Capitol Hill confused and the international community alienated, argued Pace, who served in a key NASA administrative role prior during the Bush presidency.
“No one thinks we will go beyond the International Space Station without international partners. The U.S. is not going to repeat Apollo anytime soon,” argued Pace. “But if one is to go beyond low Earth orbit with partners, one should talk to those potential partners. You should ask them what they want to do, what they are interested in doing, what are they willing to do. When you do that, you don’t hear we want to go to Mars next week. You will not hear asteroids. You will see a willingness to work with the United States. But the one thing they could do, which is return to the Moon with the United States, has really been left on the cutting room floor.”