The White House statement following the successful test launch of the Orion spacecraft is telling. Yes, it may look like a piece of transcendent technology [potentially] aiming for Mars but it’s really about growing American jobs, or at least, that’s how the White House explains it. According to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John P. Holdren:
“With today’s successful test launch and recovery of the Orion spacecraft, NASA has taken an important step towards the goal of human exploration of the solar system. Support from private-sector aerospace partners for the Orion effort – as well as for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to and from space – reflects the Administration’s commitment to create jobs, bolster the American economy, and build the strongest commercial space industry in the world.”
It’s not quite “One small step for man…”. In fact, it reminds me of Obama’s speech on military action against Islamic State that outlined the rationale for bombing – then segued somewhat surprisingly to talk of the improving outlook for US jobs and the economy.
A human trip to Mars based on the Orion spacecraft picks where NASA left off in the early 1970s when it considered building a Reusable Nuclear Shuttle, as the next step after the moon mission. But a renewed conquest of space today has to be balanced against terrestrial domestic concerns. The Apollo moon launch occurred when the US still had an industrial economy and it drew fire from community leaders and civil rights activists who questioned the priorities of the US government in sending people to the moon while many of its own citizens lived in poverty.
Today the US doesn’t have a primarily industrial economy: it’s an information and services economy undergoing great change. It leaves many people questioning where their livelihood will come from. The NASA statement on the Orion launch shows that, if nothing else, the Obama Administration ‘gets’ public anxiety in this matter.
It also shows an understanding that a significantly different space-economy will have to emerge to support future efforts towards Mars. Also, the idea of opening space exploration through privatization is consistent with the role of the US government in opening past frontiers such as the West, the sea, the air, and the internet.