Who cares if the US abandons human space flight?

by Chris Zappone

The impasse over the future of the International Space Station has some worried about the future of “international spaceflight”. Space analyst Morris Jones sums up the worst case scenario, in which the US-Russia troubles and the US-China suspicions create enough trouble to “cause much of the overall structure of astronautics to collapse.”

Since Russia announced it would pull out of the International Space Station in 2020, no other nation has given a clear signal about their future policy. But the role of the ISS means that if it goes, the plans around NASA’s Commercial Crew transport program could also be scrapped, meaning that plans for a private-sector spacecraft bite the dust too.

Then it becomes a very chicken-and-the-egg proposition. “Why build crew transfer vehicles for a space station that’s about to be scuttled?”

Dr Jones puts a timeline on the impasse, writing “If we do not see any real progress before the end of the year, some of [the] hypotheticals [about cancelled programs] will change from being possible to probable.”

It is a moment when the world is looking to the US for space leadership. I sense that behind the US silence is the same debate that is affecting the wider society and economy: who has power? Elon Musk’s SpaceX has challenged the duopoly United Launch Alliance has in sending US military satellites into space. The US military-industrial complex is nothing if not a cozy little arrangement. Its major players are not going become truly competitive without a fight first. Of course a duolopy will want to exclude a new entrant. But this same tussle over what is fair in business and the economy is happening in many sectors of the US. For example, it’s happening in the internet with the net neutrality issue, in which the entertainment companies want to carve out a fast-lane for their own content, essentially undermining what makes the internet a place for real competition. And fight back from consumer activists is pretty ferocious.

This would seem to be far from the battle for space prestige. But these struggles are everything in America these days.

The question in all of this is whether there can by a galvanizing force to kickstart the US space program back into action. If Russia telling the US to suck eggs on the ISS and China building their own isn’t enough of a catalyst, it’s not clear what would be.

NASA itself has surveyed stakeholders on their opinion of space flight for National Research Council’s report Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration. The survey of 1100 stakeholders drawn from scientific, educational, engineering, security and media backgrounds found:

that “U.S. prestige”—a concept linked to national pride and identity—would be the greatest loss if human
spaceflight activities in Low Earth Orbit and beyond Low Earth Orbit were terminated. Such a loss could be greatest for future generations.

The exact breakdown follows in a chart called:
What Would Be Lost If NASA’s Human Spaceflight Program Would Be Terminated (Open
Ended, All Mentions):

tabble

The report elaborates on the nature of national prestige, as well.

As difficult as it is to characterize other benefits of human spaceflight, the cultural “value” of human spaceflight and the role it plays in national pride and identity is even more difficult to assess. National identity has been defined as “the cohesive force that holds nation states together and shapes their relationships with the family of nations.” National pride is “the positive effect that the public feels toward their country as a result of their national identity….it is both the pride or sense of esteem that a person has for one’s nation and the pride or self-esteem that a person drives from one’s national identity.” Collective experience is represented in and reinforced by national pride and can be reflected through symbols of national experience or achievement, with which national pride is strongly correlated.

Given the worsening geopolitical situation for the US, and the fact that strength through superior technology would support the country’s security as well as economy, the silence over the future of the ISS and space in general seems strange. For those who point back to the urgency of the US space program during the Cold War, the question today is how do you achieve that kind of focus and urgency in a time of a globalized, networked population that has been told for decades that globalization is not only benign but preferred and anything that smacks of nationalism is damaging? And how do you motivate politicians and the public to support the US space program when job growth remains weak, earnings have struggled and the prospect of achieving the American Dream appears to be receding for many. A major theme may be that while in the 1950s the US was clearly in competition with the Soviet Union, today it is unclearly in competition with China. That is, the US is competing with China. But the contest appears marginal to most Americans.

Elites (politicians, policy people, strategists) in the US realize this – but until there is pressure from the public for action on the space program, which could well look like an extravagance to many Americans, the US response may be missing for sometime. In that time, the overall capacity for humanity to travel into space may decline.