Every anniversary of the first moon landing of Apollo 11 brings with it a lot of navel gazing and soul searching about what we have not been beyond low Earth orbit for several decades. Eric Berger in the Houston Chronicle and Bob Zubrin in the National Review give some good analyses about what ails the space program, though one focuses on going back to the moon and the other to Mars. Then there is Rand Simberg’s rather detestable piece in USA Today that asserts that Apollo was just all one big mistake.
In the next couple of years the United States is going to have a presidential election. Such occasions feature debates on which direction the country should go. Space should not be any exception. Thus, here follows some helpful suggestions for the next president concerning how to make that next giant leap.
The first thing you should do, Mr. or Madam Future President, is to make space an issue. Attacking the Obama space policy is a great start and a fertile field to be plowed. But you also need to lay out what you want to do. My suggestion is to go big. To paraphrase Napoleon, if you start to go back to the moon, if you start to go to Mars, then for God’s sake go back to the moon and go to Mars.
This may seem to be an act of epic courage, considering what happened to Newt Gingrich when he tried to lay out a space policy. But Gingrich made two crucial mistakes. He did not lay out why the United States should have a moon base. He was not prepared to respond when his opponents like Mitt Romney pounced. Obviously you need to lay out the political, economic, and scientific benefits of space exploration. You should also be honest that it will take an extra amount of money to accomplish. Lay out where in the federal budget you will find the money. Fortunately President Obama’s federal government is replete with useless spending that can be diverted to more useful purposes.
This will have the effect of vetting your new space policy with the American people and with various stakeholders, especially Congress. Some meetings with Congressional leaders during the transition should be held.
When you are elected president (congratulations by the way) you should set about implementing your space policy right away. President Reagan and President Bush 43 waited until the end of their first terms to start new space initiatives. You should issue an executive order to NASA the very moment your hand leaves the Bible to do the following:
The United States will mount an effort to return astronauts to the lunar surface, with the first arriving no later than five years after the date of the order. The purpose will be to establish a base to facilitate science research and economic development on the moon. International and commercial partners will be invited to participate. Here is a suggestion of how such an effort could be done.
The United States will mount human expeditions to Mars, with the goal of the first departing no later than the date of this order. International and commercial partners will be invited to participate.
The United States will mount a series of robotic probes to destinations at the Outer Planets, to include Europa, Titan, Enceladus, and the moons of Uranus and Neptune. These probes will be orbiters and landers.
These efforts would run in parallel, not in sequence. That would end effectively the moon vs. Mars debate.
A directive should be sent to the State Department to begin developing and negotiating a treaty recognizing and defending private property rights on other worlds. This will go a long way to facilitate commercial space development.
You should also have a NASA administrator picked on or before the first day of your presidency, someone who has not only bought in to your new space plan, but has participated in developing it so that he or she can be confirmed quickly and get to work giving form to the policy.
You need to include extra funding in your first budget, with realistic out year projections. . Inform Congress that this is a national priority and that any appropriations bill that falls short will be vetoed.
You need to follow through on your plan. This is not something that you can start and expect to play out on autopilot. There will be members of Congress who will try to defund your effort as part of a political grandstand. Some members of your own administration may try to undermine it. Keep plugging the plan in speeches and at events.
Finally, be open to new ideas. Prize competitions to facilitate technology development or small scale space projects are one idea. Buying data from private vendors is another. One other idea might be to rent access to an asteroid that a commercial space firm manages to capture for mining. This would fulfill the goal of asteroid missions in a more creative way than is currently being contemplated. Think about tax breaks for commercial space enterprises, such as the zero gravity, zero taxes scheme.
Do all of these steps and do them well, and you will be remembered as the president who set the world on a course to the stars. There will not be better legacies to retire on than that.