Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Schmitt criticizes Obama's space plan

'American leadership is absent from space – is this the future we will leave to our children? I hope not,' Schmitt, a former Apollo astronaut and U.S. Senator says.

Editors note: On Monday, President Barack Obama ditched plans for America to return to the moon. While pledging to increase NASA's budget by six billion dollars over the next five years he called for the space agency to stay close to Earth and do research. Former U.S. Senator and Apollo 17 Astronaut Harrison Schmitt disagrees and has long advocated a Return to the Moon.


Once again, the President has exposed his basic belief that America is not exceptional, that Americans should apologize for protecting liberty for 250 years, and that the human condition would be no worse off without our past expenditure of lives, time, and treasure in freedom’s behalf.

Since 1958, space policy, like naval policy before it, has set the geopolitical tone for the interactions between the United States and its international allies and adversaries. The President’s FY2011 budget submission to Congress shifts that tone away from leadership by America by abandoning human exploration and settlement of the Moon and Mars to China and, effectively, leaving the American Space Station under the dominance of Russia for its remaining life. With the Station’s life inherently limited by aging, these proposals sign the death warrant for American sponsored human space flight.

The President proposes to cancel the American plan to return to the Moon, the six-year old Constellation Program. In spite of funding neglect by the previous Administration and Congresses, Constellation is well on the way to developing the organizational framework, hardware, and generational skills necessary for Americans to continue to be leaders in the exploration and eventual settlement of deep space.

Ceding the space race to China and Russia

Protecting liberty and ourselves will be at great risk and probably impossible if we now abandon deep space to the any other nation or group of nations, particularly a non-democratic, national socialist regime like China. To others would accrue the benefits – psychological, political, economic, and scientific – that accrued to the United States from Apollo’s success 40 years ago. This lesson from John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower has not been lost on our ideological and economic competitors.

An American space policy that maintains deep space leadership, as well as providing major new scientific discoveries, requires returning to the Moon as soon as possible. Returning to the Moon prepares the way to go to and land on Mars, something we are a long way from knowing how to do, and trains new young Americans in how to work in and with the challenges of deep space. This also continues a policy in which freedom-loving peoples throughout the world can participate as active partners. Even more pragmatically, settlements on the Moon can send badly needed clean energy resources back to Earth.

The President also proposes Americans either (1) ride into space at the forbearance of the Russians at a cost of $50 million a seat or (2) wait for the “commercial” launch sector to succeed in developing acceptable and affordable means of placing astronauts in near-Earth space.

On the one hand, do we really want to go continue to go, hat in hand, to the Russians to access a Space Station American taxpayers have spent $150 billion to build?

What happens as the political and ideological interests of the United States and an increasingly authoritarian Russia continue to diverge? On the other hand, do we really want to put all our national space access eggs in the one basket of unproven “commercial” launch capabilities? What happens if a risk adverse NASA and Congress make those potential capabilities unaffordable?

Further, if such human launch capabilities are truly “commercial,” with NASA only one customer, why should not investors carry most of the funding load instead of the taxpayer?

Adverse consquences

Finally, the President’s space budget continues the fiction that political policies that erode both liberty and incomes can successfully counter nature’s inexorable changes in climate. It is one thing for NASA to continue to provide objective space-based sensing of climate variations so that we can understand the natural forces of change and prepare for it – it is quite another to turn the space Agency into an advocate for political initiatives that are doomed to failure but with lasting adverse consequences to all Americans and their economy.

The right and continuing space policy choice for the Congress of the United States remains as previously approved by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Returning to the Moon compares in significance to President Jefferson’s dispatch of Lewis and Clark into wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson’s decision had unquestioned and critical significance to American growth and survival.

As with the American West, human exploration of space embodies basic human instincts – freedom, curiosity, and betterment of one's conditions. America’s unique and special society of immigrants still has such instincts at its core.

Harrison H. Schmitt is a former United States Senator from New Mexico as well as a geologist and former Apollo Astronaut. He currently is an aerospace and private enterprise consultant and a member of the new Committee of Correspondence.

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