Closer to home
In politics, two things matter: time and money. If you want to know what politicians find important, check out what is getting fast tracked and over funded. The Apollo program, healthcare, even wars, things that make political sense for one or both parties meet a chorus of support manifested in these two accounts. And more often than not the country rises to the challenge, meeting unprecedented goals with unrivaled industrial might. We seem to have forgotten our own innovative and scientific talents though.
That was the mood for some when President Obama announced his vision for space exploration in April, 2010. For one, the promised six billion dollars over five years again confirmed the stagnant mediocrity to which NASA’s budget has been resigned. And second, the projected timelines made it clear that space was not a priority. Mars in the “mid-2030s” was a vague promise with no risk; it will be another president’s job to meet that ill-defined deadline.
Alongside that came the plan to visit an asteroid sometime after 2025. While Mars has been on NASA’s radar as a destination since the success of the first moon landings, Obama’s focus on asteroids was particularly instructive, and for many disappointing. That focus meant the end of Constellation and a return to the moon anytime soon. That focus also felt, well, underwhelming. Sure Bruce Willis made asteroids look pretty cool, but manned missions to an asteroid somehow lacked the sex appeal of an all-hands push for Mars. I felt that way too, but I was being selfish.
One of the most important consequences of space travel has nothing to do with space. When Kennedy made the decision to go to the moon, in a timeline that could have seen him as president when it happened no less, he made a point of emphatically reaching out to the Soviet Union. A race to the stars was inspirational for the American public, but Kennedy saw the deeper value in space, that its expansiveness redefined the rules of politics as we knew them. In space there’s enough room for everyone.
Today more than ever space exploration is defined by cooperation. NASA partners with universities, industry, and foreign governments to make its missions successful and distribute the limited resources it has in a way that Kennedy would approve of. Yet most of our international partners are tiny compared to NASA, despite its own budget being about one half of one percent of the total this fiscal year. I still think we should also aim for Mars, but that goal leaves the little guys out, as they routinely express at international conferences. An asteroid may not be sexy, but it’s something we can do together, and that means a lot.
Being a leader in science and exploration means participating in missions and programs that don’t relegate our partners to the sidelines. And remember, it is those partnerships that help politically justify NASA’s existence. Without them we remain stuck in a vision of space exploration that encourages races that captivate the imagination but alienate potential friends. In that light, an asteroid may well be a far better tool for foreign policy than a manned mission to Mars could ever hope to be, getting us closer at home by staying closer to home.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of SpaceFlight Insider.
Since 2011 Joshua Tallis has served as the manager for research and analysis at an intelligence and security services provider in Washington, DC. Josh has co-authored several articles in the Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security International with colleagues from the defense community. Previous work experience includes internships at the U.S. Congress and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Josh is also a PhD student in International Relations at the University of St Andrews' Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. He is a Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa and Special Honors graduate of The George Washington University where he received a BA in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs.