Kent Johnson - Warrior Contributor - retired USAF F-15 Strike Eagle and A-10 Warthog pilot,
From Nostalgia to Action – focusing on Moon, Mars and Low Cost Launch
Space is that special place where great American nostalgia resides, global imaginations run freely, almost no one has been, and yet we depend on it more than most will ever appreciate. In this strange place – big things are happening. More each day. It is time, again, to pay closer attention to space.
In the Cold War days of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, even the detente days of Apollo-Soyuz, and eventually with the Space Shuttle and International Space Station’s debut, many Americans focused regularly on space. It had glamor, glitz, risk and accomplishment about it. Then, when the Space Shuttle got shuttered, many turned away and other national priorities with a greater sense of urgency claimed the country’s attention. But new developments are turning the lights back on and once again demanding focus on space and what it represents from several standpoints.
In the near future, plans will emerge on three space realities. First, we are seeing real moves toward returning to the moon – among Americans, and as the Chinese photographically-gifted robot suggests, among foreign governments.
Second, we will see – in fact, already are – rising operational tempo or cadence tied to must-solve problems that get Mankind to Mars, and help us stay there. These problems are presently being trouble-shot by the United States – commercially and within the government – as well as by China and others. Mars will become – in the lives of some today – a real venture.
Third, closest in time and hitting nearest to home, there has been an upsurge in investment, focus and technical drive to get smaller satellites rapidly, efficiently, safely and cost-effectively to low earth orbit – for all sorts of positive and pressing reasons. Key here is the cost factor – as the revolution in small satellite technology (and innovative, lower cost means of getting them to orbit), promises to greatly reduce costs across the board, from design and development to launch to replacement.
Of course, the role of satellites in supporting modern life is manifold, even if not continuously recognized and appreciated. Americans and others track global environmental and security shifts, sudden weather and human emergencies, evolving science and population trends, as well as solar and planetary activity. Perhaps above all, we depend on satellites – most of which are positioned in low orbit – to provide us with security and uninterrupted communications. It is for all of these reasons why a sudden drop in the cost of getting to orbit is revolutionary.
So here we are. What are the implications of that third development? Several right off the top. Congress will begin asking how to lower the cost of putting US Government assets in space, and so should government agencies. Companies – and their boards – will start asking the same questions. And people will begin to wonder – rightly – why we spend so much to put things in space, once a small American company or two gets orbital.
What else? Congress will likely ask about the environmental impact, as well as about how the fuels are chosen, and which ones the Federal Government should support – to sustain longer term expansion of the space and satellite industries. Along the same lines, Congress will likely begin to ask agencies to focus on keeping American assets, launches and jobs in America – and that is foreseeable, because we have done that in all other sectors.
Net-net, the truth is that space is getting exciting again – and it is about time. Nostalgia and imagination are fine, and we are lucky to have both to think about – but the future of space is in one place only, and that is ahead and overhead. So, hats off to those who are making the future and helping us get back to the moon, on to Mars, and most immediately up into low earth orbit at markedly lower cost, with respect for the environment and keeping those new jobs and launches in America.
Kent Johnson is a retired USAF F-15 Strike Eagle and A-10 Warthog pilot, and political-military advisor on the staff of the secretary of the Air Force, and an adjunct at North Central Texas College in Gainesville, Texas, specializing in defense studies.