The Obama administration has proved its talent for inflicting both short and long-term wounds on America’s strength.
One, relatively little noted but perhaps the most serious and long-term of all in its consequences, has been the damage done to the U.S. space program, as China’s and, despite its new economic problems, Russia’s programs press steadily on.
The recent landing of an instrument package on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was not an American but a European feat — the sort of thing America used to excel in.
Where America alone has been able to land men on the Moon, and a few years ago led the world with the Space Shuttle, the first spaceship, it now depends on Russian rockets to get personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.
The American space program has become hostage to an increasingly surly and unfriendly Russia, whose commitment to supply and service the ISS only lasts to 2016, after which it will have the U.S. over a barrel.
The disastrous crash of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spacecraft, on which many hopes rode as the start of something great, has at the very least set back private commercial spaceflight for years and perhaps permanently. The seriousness of this does not seem to be fully appreciated within the political process. Perhaps the most optimistic thing to be said about it is that Anglo-American technology has historically shown great ability to recover from disasters (the Titanic had a near-identical sister-ship which, with improvements, successfully plyed its trade for many years).
In 1980 a group of patriotic U.S. science-fiction writers, led by Jerry Pournelle, Jim Baen, and Larry Niven, organized meetings of some of the top minds in the space industry — military men, astronauts, engineers, spacecraft designers, NASA personnel, some “hard” SF writers and even some lawyers — with the objective of writing a space program for the Reagan administration with hard goals, timetables, and costs: the Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy.
The overarching objective was to get direction back into the U.S. space program, then floundering in the aftermath of Vietnam, which had both drained off money and strengthened an adversary culture that was as opposed to space flight as it was to military strength, and the collapse of national self-confidence. And the CACNP sought, frankly and ambitiously, to win the Cold War.
One result when, amazingly, the Reagan administration actually listened to the council’s recommendations instead of writing it off as a bunch of crack-pots, President Reagan made a high-profile move to set up the “Star Wars” missile defense system. The Soviet Union tried to match it and couldn’t. The rest is history, and Ronald Reagan, who had starred in Bedtime for Bonzo, had as his last starring role Bedtime for Communism.
The contrast with today is striking: today the U.S. has no reliable launch vehicles of its own, and no hard program in place. It gave up the ability to get to the Moon long ago, though advances in computers and other areas should have made this easier and safer than in the ’60s and ’70s.
Since the last shuttle was retired in 2011, the U.S. has been dependent on Russian rockets and, most crucially, plans to replace the shuttle, such as the Constellation, appear to have been shelved. President Obama’s lack of interest in this — as in preserving other aspects of U.S. — strength, is almost palpable. The one gleam of hope in the American sky is that NASA recently announced the award of contracts to Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Space-X to build a seven-person launch vehicle by 2017.
NASA has been talking big about going to Mars but there is little or nothing of a hard timetable, and the “space medicine” problems of prolonged exposure to cosmic rays and muscle-deterioration due to prolonged low gravity will have to be solved by all countries with space ambitions.
But NASA’s abilities today are a long way from even the moon, and China has plainly given itself a goal of hegemony in space as a high national priority, unhindered by considerations of budget or politics.
Under pressure from President Obama, the NASA director promised to pursue Muslim outreach, a policy that has nothing whatsoever to do with the goals for which NASA was established, and is indeed so far removed from them that it is again possible to see this as a policy of deliberate destruction of the agency and part of an overarching strategy of reducing American power.
Set this “Muslim outreach” goal against Islamic fundamentalist leader Abu Hamza Al-Masri’s rantings to the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat at the time of the Columbia space-shuttle disaster in 1993:
“It is a punishment from Allah — this is how Muslims see the incident. The target of this event was the trinity of evil, as the shuttle carried Americans, an Israeli, and a Hindu, the trinity of evil against Islam.
“This is a message to the American people that Bush’s term is nothing but a string of curses cast upon them, and that it will lead to the exhaustion of their resources and the elimination of the false American dream… This is a divine message to the Israelis, saying that they are not welcome in space.”
Being flown to the International Space Station as a passenger beholden to the grace and favor of the Russians offers the American people — and astronauts — little in the way of challenge or appeal to the spirit of adventure. Remember the names of the space shuttles: Endeavor, Discovery, Enterprise, Challenger…? Three of them bore the same names as the ships of Captain Cook, the most successful and daring explorer of the seas in the great age of scientific daring and achievement of the nineteenth century.
NASA’s recently announced plans to build a seven-person launch vehicle by 2017 hardly mean a return to the moon, or to Mars, and China, has plainly given a goal of hegemony in space a high national priority, unhindered by considerations of budget or politics.
President Kennedy said: “We are going to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard.” President Obama, on the other hand, claimed with quite alarming childishness that there was no need to do more in that direction because “we’ve been there already”! (A good job Ferdinand and Isabella did not have that attitude to Columbus’s voyage.)
Without a reliable launch vehicle, independent access to space is not possible. Giving up its autonomy in space has major implications for the national security of the U.S. and its allies.
Meanwhile China has been moving steadily forward from a standing start in developing heavy launch vehicles and a manned space program aimed at setting up bases on the moon — the ultimate “high ground” in strategic terms. It now has 3-man vehicles where America has none.
China’s investment in stupendously expensive items such as aircraft carriers which it does not obviously need, the Three Gorges Dam, and the pressurized high-altitude railway through the Himalayas to Tibet shows its determination to be the highly visibleworld leader in technology and to demonstrate the fact, no matter what the cost and no matter that much of its population, especially in the rural areas, still live in poverty. Hegemony in space would be more than a stupendous military asset: it is the sine qua non of technological achievement. It would wipe out forever the humiliation of the “unequal treaties” and the opium wars of the nineteenth century. Further, a Chinese military presence in space, with the possibility of nuclear weapons, would by a terrible menace to Taiwan — and beyond.
Couple this with another US President as defeatist and/or unpatriotic as Obama (admittedly highly improbable), product of a culture opposed to modernity, and the consequences hardly bear thinking about.
The distinguished author and Sinologist Robert Elegant has written:
The present regime is seeking to strengthen its threatened domestic position by asserting China’s claims to greatness.… Beijing’s unswerving over-riding purpose is retribution for the humiliations imposed by outside powers during the past two centuries. Chinese intellectuals, as well as strategic thinkers, have for the past century been committed to making the nation mortally respected, indeed desperately feared, by building up an immense industrial base and therefrom a world-class military machine.
Hegemony in space is no more than a logical twenty-first century aspect of this. Any power with a base on the moon makes a statement of technological superiority no rival or competitor can ignore.
A vigorous space program — now for China a given — can also be expected to confer new and often unexpected benefits across a whole range of technologies and industries, as happened in the U.S. when its space program got underway, and revolutionized computers, weather forecasting, etc.
It is a sobering thought that the present U.S. administration has allowed China to surpass it in many ways. According to the journal Strategic Policy, published by the U.S.-based think tank the International Strategic Studies Association, China began extensive research into space medicine twenty years before its first taikonaut (astronaut) was launched, learning from U.S. and Russian experiences. China launched its own space station, Tiangong-1 in 2013, and, with the Shenzhou-10 mission, had it dock with a three-person vehicle. It is possible to believe that, in contract to Beijing’s policy, Obama’s ultimate purpose is actually to weaken America so it can no longer project power, and to punish it for certain historical wrongs. (That such a policy, if this is correct, can be called treason, goes without saying. This is a grave accusation, but it appears not to disagree with the facts.)
A series of new launch vehicles are expected to be unveiled by China in 2015 from the new launching facility at Hainan Island, including new versions of the highly successful Long March rockets — marks 5, 6, and 7.