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Project Apollo was all about proving our technology could stomp Soviet technology. Today? Proving that all over again isn't all that useful, in geo-political terms. However, proving we can be a team player (following Mr. Unilateral Gee Dubya Bush) is very much in our strategic geopolitical interest and space exploration offers us a venue for doing precisely that.

In August 2008 the Obama campaign issued a very strong space policy document which included this passage:

Space exploration must be a global effort. Barack Obama will use space as a strategic tool of U.S. diplomacy to strengthen relations with allies, reduce future conflicts, and engage members of the developing world.

I assert that human space exploration offers us a venue where we can practice the types of global cooperation and collaboration that shall be necessary to sustain global climate management across decades and political transitions. We can also use human space exploration to enhance our global soft power to achieve security with a reduced emphasis on military firepower.

In my PVSE #2 essay, I suggested:

Doing space exploration the "right way" can facilitate our ability to think ecologically and with respect to the extended sustainability of large scale human ventures;

A meaningful program of human space exploration cannot be accomplished within two Presidential terms in office - let alone one - and therefore if the United States government is to initiate a sustainable program of human space exploration, that program must be able to continue across transitions in political power. In June of 2004, a group known as the Aldridge Commission presented a report to President Bush concerning his Vision for Space Exploration and political sustainability was one key area of concern.

As explained by Aldridge Commission member Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

One major issue that the new space initiative faces is sustainability: how do you maintain a long-range program like the President’s plan, with milestones that extend to 2020 and beyond, given the changes in both administrations and Congresses? The commission identified sustainability as perhaps the biggest challenge facing the plan during its first public hearing, and Tyson spent some time during his presentation to address the issue from a couple of different angles.

and this language was found in the Aldridge Commission report itself:

   To sustain this program over many Presidential Administrations and Congressional sessions, our leaders must routinely explain the value, affordability and credibility of the program to all Americans so that they accept ownership of it.
   * * *

   Successful implementation of the national space exploration vision will require significant cultural and organizational changes in the federal government's approach to managing the effort, and bold transformational initiatives must be undertaken.

I believe this issue is of VITAL importance in the arena of addressing global climate change as even President Obama cannot possibly "solve" global warming in either four or eight years.

Recall that Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House and Ronald Reagan ordered them removed.

In addition, global climate change cannot be addressed by the United States in isolation, or unilaterally. We MUST coordinate and collaborate with the entire world, especially when we take note that Chinese coal use can easily swamp whatever carbon dioxide reductions we may achieve in North America.

Cooperative, collaborative and extended international human space exploration activities offers the opportunity to practice these skills with much smaller stakes than we face with respect to global climate change.  

And here is a quote from the Congressional testimony of Charles F. Bolden a potential candidate for NASA Administrator:

I'd like to offer a closing thought on what I believe continues to be one of the greatest benefits of human space exploration – the incredible opportunity for international engagement and cooperation in a common goal of furthering our understanding of this universe in which we live.

Progressive Principles of Foreign Policy

On January 22, 2008 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed employees at the State Department. One summary is here:

In her spirited 10-minute pep talk, she spoke of the importance of defense, diplomacy and development — the "three legs to the stool of American foreign policy" — and noted that the State Department is in charge of two of them.

"We are responsible for two of the three legs," said the former New York senator and first lady. "And we will make clear as we go forward that diplomacy and development are essential tools in achieving the long-term objectives of the United States."

Clinton's mandate from Obama is to step up diplomatic efforts and restore the nation's tattered image overseas. She has vowed to make use of "smart power" to deal with international challenges.

I return again to my often cited MIT Research Group report: The Future of Human Spaceflight in support of my argument that cooperative, collaborative space exploration can play a role in achieving the objectives Clinton has defined. I offer these excerpts from that report:

Though the Cold War rivalry has faded, its presumption that leadership in space correlated with economic, political, and cultural leadership had wide impact. As many observers have noted, human spacefl ight is an instrument of soft power – it serves as an example for members of other nations and cultures to emulate and follow. Incorporating this logic as their own, other nations have accepted the notion that human spaceflight is a marker of modernity and first-class status. In China and Japan, not to mention numerous other nations who have flown people on American or Russian flights, astronauts remain public figures of iconic "rock star" status. When Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote to President Hu Jintao after the fi rst Chinese human spaceflight, he congratulated him on the "successful advancement of your country along the path of comprehensive development, of its becoming a modern world power."

* * *

As historian Slava Gerovitch writes, "the Soviet cosmonauts publicly represented a communist ideal, an active human agency of sociopolitical and economic change." The Chinese similarly acclaim their taikonauts as embodiments of a Chinese history, culture, and technological prowess. As historian James Hansen has written, the cultural iconography surrounding China’s first space traveler, Shenzhou V’s Yang Liwei, evoked reactions mixing "pragmatic nationalism, communist ideology, traditional Confucian values, and [the] drive for economic and high-tech industrial competitiveness." In India, too, accomplishments in space represent national aspirations to become a global power.

If we assist these nations achieve their space exploration goals we can enhance our reputation as a global team player - a reputation currently in tatters - and that offers very real geo-political soft power benefits.

Two competing views

After the MIT Study was released, James Oberg presented an essay offering objections to that study:

First, it falls for the classic wish-fulfillment fantasy that playing nice together in space—forming partnerships on significant space projects—can actually compel terrestrial nations to become more friendly to each other despite deep-seated conflicting goals. Second, the report promotes the view that the cost of large space projects can only be afforded if they are shared by an international alliance—contrary to all experience, including that of the ISS, that splitting national responsibilities for integrated projects makes them more expensive, not less.

A week later, David A. Mindell, director of the MIT Space, Policy, and Society Research Group responded:

For example, Oberg takes the white paper to task for stating that, "human spaceflight is sufficiently difficult and expensive that international collaboration may be the only way to accomplish certain goals" and then ridicules as a "cosmic scale misconception" any recommendation for collaboration as a means of cost-sharing. This criticism is based on several errors. First, it is a simple and obvious fact that certain goals in human spaceflight are beyond the resources of the United States, especially at this time. Second, the review, in addition to overlooking the critical word "may," seizes only on the "expensive" not on the "difficult"—it fails to consider the possibility that other nations might actually have skills and technology that could contribute to US efforts. Third, and most important, the white paper nowhere recommends cost-sharing as a rationale for international collaboration nor suggests that international collaboration would reduce mission costs. To the contrary, the white paper argues that international collaboration is a primary objective of human spaceflight on its own terms, for the national and international benefits it may (or may not) bring, and not a means of saving money.

Let me break out the responses:

First, it is a simple and obvious fact that certain goals in human spaceflight are beyond the resources of the United States, especially at this time.

Depending upon how we define "certain goals" is is obviously true.

Second, the review, in addition to overlooking the critical word "may," seizes only on the "expensive" not on the "difficult"—it fails to consider the possibility that other nations might actually have skills and technology that could contribute to US efforts.

This also is true. Russia and Sweden - for example - have metallurgical technologies useful for building the very best rocket engines that we cannot duplicate, at the present time. We could, perhaps, but it would be expensive.

Third, and most important, the white paper nowhere recommends cost-sharing as a rationale for international collaboration nor suggests that international collaboration would reduce mission costs. To the contrary, the white paper argues that international collaboration is a primary objective of human spaceflight on its own terms, for the national and international benefits it may (or may not) bring, and not a means of saving money.

And here we come to a cross-roads concerning the purpose of human spaceflight, especially if we compare this third passage with Oberg:

First, it falls for the classic wish-fulfillment fantasy that playing nice together in space—forming partnerships on significant space projects—can actually compel terrestrial nations to become more friendly to each other despite deep-seated conflicting goals.

Will collaboration in human space exploration solve all of the world's tensions? Eh, probably not. But will it offer at least the possibility of helping? I say "yes"

Conclusion

The MIT report has stated that:

There are presently no known natural resources in space that can be profitably exploited. Even were such resources and an efficient extraction scheme to be discovered, it is unlikely that human presence would be required. Human presence will always be more expensive than remote operations, so any genuine space-based extractive business is likely to be heavily based on remote presence. Therefore technology and economic development are secondary objectives of human spaceflight.

None of this is to say that secondary objectives are unimportant; all have contributing roles to play in justifying government expenditures on space exploration. Secondary objectives may or may not justify their own costs, but in general they do not justify the risk to human life.

I believe the foregoing is true. But if I am wrong, then we can expect the free market to identify those resources and take steps to incorporate those resources into the human economy. Taxpayers can and should assist but only with a skeptical eye to avoid boondoggles.

However, even if it is 100% true that there are no known resources that can be profitably exploited, the case for human space exploration remains strong. Using human space exploration as a venue to enhance international collaboration and understanding is merely one example.

Originally posted to Bill White on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 06:56 PM PST.

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