It’s time to get beyond low earth orbit

Whenever a new presidential administration takes office, there’s a surge of gossip in the space exploration community about what the new president’s ambitions will mean for NASA. More funding to study climate change? Additional robotic exploration of the solar system? Renewed interest in manned spaceflight? A manned trip to Mars? A return trip to the Moon?

Many people speculate that there’s even a “red/blue” dynamic to space exploration – that Republicans tend to like the idea of returning mankind to the Moon, while Democrats prefer pushing on to an asteroid, or perhaps even Mars. Much of this is really a false dichotomy, based almost entirely on very recent history. In 2004 President George W. Bush announced that the United States would retire the space shuttle program in favor of building Apollo-style capsules and launch vehicles that would return human beings to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972, with the idea of setting up a permanent manned colony. President Barack Obama, shortly after taking office, scrapped Bush’s plan to return the Moon in favor of going first to an asteroid and eventually Mars in the 2030s, using the same Apollo-inspired spacecraft.

Space exploration, particularly of the manned variety, has never really been a red/blue thing. It has always been more a mingling of genuine scientific inquiry, national pride and a desire to maintain American dominance in advanced technology and scientific research.

NASA was founded in 1958 under a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, with the goal of overtaking the Soviets in space technology and establishing a human presence on the Moon. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, declared that the United States would put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s Democratic successor, insured NASA had all the necessary funding to make sure that would happen. And all of the Apollo lunar landings occurred between 1969 and 1972, which Republican Richard Nixon was president.

Since that time, however, manned spaceflight has been confined to low-earth orbit (LEO). The space shuttle – one of the most complex machines ever designed – never left this relatively close area of space. And the International Space Station – the largest manmade object ever built in space – also maintains its presence in orbit around the Earth. The exploration of our solar system by human beings, therefore, has not been a priority of presidents, Republican or Democrat, in almost 45 years.

In writing our sci-fi thriller Ocean of Storms, my coauthor, Jeremy K. Brown, and I gave an impetus for humanity to return to the Moon: something cataclysmic happens on the lunar surface that compels us to send astronauts back, to understand what had occurred. Naturally, neither Jeremy nor I want a global threat to occur just so manned space exploration becomes a priority once again. But it’s important to bear in mind that we human beings tend to need an existential threat to get us to come together and do something extraordinary: think of the Allied response to the aggression of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II or of all of the Soviet successes in spaceflight that marshaled American efforts to put Neil Armstrong’s boot print on the lunar surface. Space enthusiasts like ourselves, scientists, engineers and researchers may clamor all we want for the human exploration of our solar system, but the only thing that will likely move the needle in the direction of making manned space exploration a U.S. priority again is a perceived threat to American dominance.

That threat may well come from China. Since 2003, when China put Yang Liwei, its first taikonaut into orbit, the Chinese government has funded a vigorous space exploration program. In 2013 the Chinese Space Agency landed Chang’e 3, a robotic lander and rover, on the surface of the Moon, the first such object to soft land on the lunar surface since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 did in 1976. The Chinese have planned a robotic lunar sample return mission for 2017. A Chinese manned lunar mission is expected to occur as early as 2025 – just eight years from now, or about as long as it took from JFK’s declaration to the first Apollo lunar landing in July 1969.

Any incoming presidential administration should sit up and take notice of China’s successful manned space program, especially in light of the current state of ours. While there have been American astronauts on the International Space Station since its inception, they have not flown there on a U.S. space vehicle since 2011 – when the last space shuttle was decommissioned. Since that time, the United States has paid for seats to fly our astronauts to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecrafts. The U.S.’s next-generation spacecraft, Orion, is not expected to fly with a crew aboard until 2021 – ten years after the shuttle fleet was decommissioned. (Private companies, like SpaceX, are also developing manned space vehicles but are also years from test flights.)

As Americans, Jeremy and I believe one of the best ways to ensure our country’s competitive edge in technological innovation is through a robust space program. As human beings, we want to ensure the long-term survival of our race, and the only way to do that is to grow the human presence in space, in colonies across the solar system. And as fathers both, we want our kids to understand that anything is possible – and there’s no better way to show them that than to point to the Moon or Mars and say: “Once upon a time, no one lived there. And now we do.”

Christopher Mari was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and was educated at Fordham University. He has edited books on a wide variety of topics, including three on space exploration. His writing has appeared in such magazines as America, Current Biography, Issues and Controversies, and US Catholic. His next novel, The Beachhead, will be published by 47North in 2017. He lives with his family in Queens, New York.

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