Since the United States beat the Soviet Union to the moon, America has enjoyed almost a half-century of uncontested space supremacy. Yet, if the U.S. doesn’t make an effort to finance the pursuit of new frontiers and technologies, it could find itself losing its orbital empire.
That’s the conclusion behind a report issued last Friday by a 12-group coalition at the National Press Club. The report suggests that the key to making sure the U.S. continues to maintain an unrivaled leadership in space includes completing a crewed launch system, drafting stable NASA budgets with adequate funding, and doing more with international partners on various different projects like the International Space Station.
It’s easy to see why people are afraid that the country’s space leadership is threatened. Competing countries and private companies are making serious efforts to break into space mining while the ground is soft. Some countries are forging partnerships with each other and excluding the U.S. from their space exploration projects. Issues around space security are only getting worse. NASA has effectively handed off efforts to go back to the moon to the rest of the world, even though the moon is kind of essential to actually getting to Mars. And overall, a lot of members of Congress just don’t think NASA has really thought through its goal to get astronauts to the red planet within the next few decades. And it goes on.
But the biggest problem, according to the new report, is that NASA’s budget is too low. It’s at a historic nadir when it comes to its share of the overall federal budget. Meanwhile, many countries, like China, are increasing the amount of funding they are pouring into space exploration.
Strangely enough, Congress is sort of aware NASA needs more money to meet its goals, especially when it comes to Mars — yet they aren’t doing more to set aside that money. The report also suggests that the U.S. is getting complacent about its leadership in space. We’ve been so successful in the past that we’ve simply gotten lazy.
The third major pillar the report cites is the need for a launch system. You might recall how, since the Space Shuttle program was shuttered, NASA has relied on Russia for any crewed mission. The agency is working to finish its new Space Launch System to make us independent again. But more importantly, the SLS will let us send humans out much farther than just low Earth orbit. Getting this built in time for a planned 2018 test is a crucial step towards cementing the country’s leadership role in space.
It’s important to remember the U.S. is by no means falling behind, per se. As NASA administrator Charles Bolden reminded the public last fall, the rest of the world still looks to the U.S. for leadership. Big projects like sending humans to Mars don’t happen “unless [the U.S.] steps forward and takes the leadership.” This new report is just a gentle reminder that we can’t get cocky and rest on our laurels.