6 – Why the next president should start America on the path to becoming a true spacefaring nation

Blog 3 and Blog 4, I wrote of what the U.S. National Space Policy, the Space Commission, and the Aerospace Commission had to say about America becoming a true spacefaring nation.  In SA Blog 5, I raised the issue that America becoming a true spacefaring nation should be an important national issue during the upcoming 2008 presidential election.  I imagine that two immediate questions come to mind.  Why would/should any presidential candidate care?  After all, won’t the new president have a long list of other important problems to address before the nation should apply more resources to space?  The answer to these questions, I believe, has to do with the need for the next president to act to preserve America’s “great power/great nation” status. 


What is a “great power”?


“A great power is a nation or state that, through its great economic, political, military and diplomatic strength, is able to exert power in the world.  Its opinions are strongly taken into account by other nations before taking diplomatic or military action.” (Source)  Kenneth Waltz (Columbia University scholar on international relations) “uses a set of five criteria to determine great power: population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, political stability and competence, and military strength.” (Source)


Why is being a great power important to the United States? 


The reason is quite fundamental and clearly evident from the events of the 20th century.  A nation whose citizens wish to remain free either establishes strong political and military alliances with a great power willing to protect their freedom or, absent such a protector, becomes a great power.  In the Revolutionary War, Americans broke free of Great Britain by forming an alliance with France–another great power of the day that was willing to expend its treasure to help Americans gain freedom (and without requiring a formal, permanent alliance with France!).  The U.S. repaid this moral debt to France in World War I and II and accepted the great power protector role with many other countries.  Because there is no great power protector nation waiting in the wings to assure America’s freedom, America must act to sustain its great power status.


What role does becoming a true spacefaring nation play in great power status?


Recall, from SA Blog 4, the Aerospace Commission’s conclusion: “The Commission concludes that the nation will have to be a space-faring nation to be the global leader in the 21st century—our freedom, mobility, and quality of life will depend on it.”  (Note: this was the Aerospace Commission’s conclusion and not from the national security-focused Space Commission.) A “global leader” is a great nation.


This conclusion is an extension of the fact that many great nations have depended on their seafaring and, most recently, air-faring capabilities to sustain their great power status.  In looking at Waltz’s five great power criteria, seafaring/air-fairing extended territory, increased population, provided access to new and different resources, increased economic strength through trade, provided the logistics mobility to forge new political alliances, and, obviously, added military power.


While seafaring and air-fairing extend, in two dimensions, a great nation’s power projection capabilities beyond its contiguous land borders to enable it to access the entire planet, spacefaring will enable great nations to extend their power in three dimensions into space. Several of Waltz’s great power criteria will be influenced by a great power becoming spacefaring:


Territory:  A spacefaring nation will in the mid-term have access to the entire Earth-Moon system followed by the entire central solar system.  In the longer term, this access will grow to the entire solar system.  A spacefaring great power will reach across the solar system just as today’s great power’s have economic, political, and security reach across the planet.


Resource endowment:  A spacefaring nation will have access to traditional, but extraterrestrial material resources from, in the mid-term, the Moon, asteroids, and comets.  (Note: We don’t think of these as traditional raw material resources today, but neither was the ocean bottom viewed as a significant source of energy resources only a century ago.)  A spacefaring nation will also have access to new, non-traditional resources in space–vacuum; zero-gravity; unlimited, 24/365 solar energy; and, potentially, entirely new physics-based energy sources.


Economic capability:  Economic capability arises from human enterprise applied to extracting wealth (either material or intellectual) from accessing resources.  A spacefaring nation will have the spacefaring logistics infrastructure to enable its citizens and private enterprises to access and make use of the resources of space.


Military strength:  A spacefaring nation will have the technologies and spacefaring logistics infrastructure necessary to enable its military to: (1) exploit space to better provide for national security; (2) protect and defend the spacefaring nation’s space enterprises and its citizens living and working in space; (3) protect the Earth and the Moon from impact by significant asteroids and comets; (4) use its military space capabilities to support human and robotic scientific discovery and exploration; and, (5) use the development of advanced military capabilities to “prime the technology pump” for further commercial technology and capability advancements–particularly with respect to spacefaring logistics.


Why is it important for the U.S., as a great power today, to become spacefaring to preserve its great power status in the 21st century?


Great power status is achieved through competition between nations.  This competition is often based on advancing science and technology and applying these advancements to enabling new operational capabilities.  A great power that succeeds in this competition adds to its power while a great power that does not compete or does so ineffectively or by choice, becomes comparatively less powerful.  Eventually, it loses the great power status and then must align itself with another great power for protection.


As the pace of science and technology advancement has increased, so has the potential for the pace of change of great power status.  While the U.S. “invented” powered flight in 1903, a decade later leadership in this area had shifted to Europe.  Within a little more than a decade after the Wright Brothers’ first flights, the great powers of Europe were introducing aeronautics into major land warfare through the creation of air forces.  When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, it was forced to rely on French-built aircraft.  Twenty years later, as the European great powers were on the verge of beginning another major European war, the U.S. found itself in a similar situation where its choice to diminish national investment in aeronautics during the 1920’s and 1930’s–you may recall that this was the era of General Billy Mitchell and his famous efforts to promote military air power–placed U.S. air forces at a significant disadvantage compared to those of Germany and Japan.  This was crucial because military air power was quickly emerging as the “game changer” for conventional warfare.  Land and sea forces increasingly needed capable air forces to survive and generally needed air superiority to prevail.


With the great power advantages of becoming spacefaring expected to be comparable to those derived from becoming air-faring in the 1920’s and 1930’s, a delay by the U.S. in enhancing its great power strengths through expanded national space power may result in a reoccurrence of the rapid emergence of new or the rapid growth of current great powers to the point that they are capable of effectively challenging the U.S.


Many great powers–China, India, and Russia–are already speaking of plans for developing spacefaring capabilities.  Yet, today, the U.S. retains a commanding aerospace technological lead over these nations.  A strong effort by the U.S. to become a true spacefaring nation, starting in 2009 with the new presidential administration, may yield a generation or longer lead in space, not just through prudent increases in military strength but also through the other areas of great power competition discussed above.  This is an advantage that the next presidential administration should exercise.

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