Just over 200 years ago an American president initiated a program of exploration that sent two men to the Pacific Ocean. Fifty years ago, another American president initiated a program of exploration that sent two men to the Sea of Tranquility. Fifty years after Lewis and Clark we had the California Gold Rush, and it was just another 16 years to the completion of the first transcontinental railroad with the Golden Spike. But fifty years after the beginning of the Apollo Program, the New Frontier of space has been trailing far behind the pace of the frontier of the American West. Why the striking contrast?
From the beginning, the effective goal of the US space program was to dominate this new frontier against Soviet incursions. Despite the costs, it worked. Until recently, whether by accident or by design, it has suited the United States for space to be expensive. As long as no other country or regional bloc could rival US expenditure on space, US supremacy was assured by these high costs, which have formed a de facto US strategy for space, even after the Cold War. In this sense, we are still living in the Apollo era of space policy. What should our “After Apollo” space policy be? Perhaps no US response is needed? Our pride may be hurt, but realism suggests that space really doesn’t matter. After all, space is a small industry. The entire global space industry, by its own Space Foundation estimates in 2007, and including the GPS chips so common in cell phones, amounted to just two-thirds of Walmart’s turnover.
On the contrary, US competitiveness is threatened, including in space, and this matters. The US government should respond by playing to the nation’s strength and play the same role in space in the 21st century, that it played in the development of the American West in the 19th century: making the frontier safe for capitalism. This is not a Cold War style argument that attempts to scare the United States into a renewed space program based on military fears. Rather, the United States has made a huge investment in space, and now has a clear technological advantage. As the Chinese and others catch up with the United States, that advantage is eroding. At some point, which could be in the near future, the value of space resources will become commercially exploitable. When that happens, will US companies be the ones reaping the rewards?
The formal goal of the US space program, for nearly 30 years and under both parties, has been, as George W. Bush, stated clearly: “to advance US scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.” Of the three elements of this goal—science, security, and economic growth—NASA has done a great job promoting a robust scientific program in space. Military security, from spy satellites to the GPS system, is also robust; the United States Air Force (USAF) and National Reconnaissance Office space programs form a US $20-$30 billion-year enterprise.