Carl Sagan is famous for romanticizing astronomy and the universe and for encouraging popular interest in space. Reality still rules Sagan’s grandiose perception of humanity’s purpose outside of Earth, however. In fostering national interest in space, his reasoning is clear: “Every surviving civilization is obliged to become spacefaring — not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive.”
As Sagan implies, Americans interested in space need to ascertain why our country has a vested interest there. Ronald Reagan and many conservative allies have done well to identify one logical and agreeable ground for spending tax dollars beyond the atmosphere: national defense. Of all the reasons to support the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other governmental agencies regarding space, we ultimately revert back to the traditional justification of preserving our nation and its interests.
And our national interests are at stake. Frank Klotz of The National Interest asserts that “[a] new space race, of private and public authorities, is inevitable.” While private companies like Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corporation frequently launch their own rockets into space, the United States government lags behind. And, by scrapping the shuttle program and reducing launches to save money, our country diminishes its national influence over what happens beyond the atmosphere.
As the U.S. lags, other international powers are increasing their space influence. According to the Heritage Foundation, Russia’s growing political power bloc — which incorporates former Soviet republics — “could endanger the neighborhood and U.S. interests,” especially future regional development. These forces are pooling geopolitical resources, and part of this pooling is a potential expansion of their space programs. Russia’s own space program, supported financially by these allies, could threaten America’s dominance regionally and perhaps in the entire Asian continent. Already, Space News reports that Russia is boosting its space program budget to $7.9 billion per year, exceeding China’s and matching the E.U.’s. As more nations bandwagon behind the space power Russia develops, they will become more intertwined politically and economically. As a symbol of progress and authority, the Russian Federal Space Agency signifies Russian hopes for influence beyond its borders.
Even small states have demonstrated the capability of launching substantial loads. In January, Iran launched a monkey into space, which is an empirical prelude to expanding its technology base for rocket launches. When an enemy rogue state advances in space exploration, America’s preeminence in the field falls. We must be wary of areas where our enemies gain ground, especially if they seize greater control over what should be, under international law, neutral ground.
In addition to the military and geopolitical benefits of a strong space program, increasing funding for NASA and other federal agencies will lead to economic growth as well. G. Scott Hubbard, a Stanford Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, claims that we should “explore space and create important new technologies to advance our economy. It is true that, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Space exploration can also serve as a stimulus for children to enter the fields of science and engineering.” Clear economic benefits, like increasing GDP and encouraging the next scientific workforce, provide sound basis for developing this vital program.
To put NASA’s current, miniscule funding into perspective, Keith Cowing, founder of NASAWatch.com, uses the following comparison: “Right now, all of America’s human space flight programs cost around $7 billion a year. That’s pennies per person per day. In 2006, according to the USDA, Americans spent more than $154 billion on alcohol. We [spent] around $10 billion a month in Iraq.” Our current space budget is a drop in the bucket compared to the mammoth federal budget. NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2014 is less than the cost of providing air conditioning to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. For its benefits, the costs of the space program are minimal.
National defense is the culmination of national interests and goals. Funding space programs allows for a stronger national defense by promoting potential U.S. military interests, addressing geopolitical competition from Russia, China and other powers and boasts substantial return on investment.
If the United States, following the resolution of the government shutdown and debt ceiling crises, appropriates more federal funding for this valuable area, we will see America regain some of its eroded national prominence, and ensure American dominance in space for decades to come.
—Brennan Mancil is a freshman studying political science and international affairs
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