To Boldly Go
Why liberal patriots ought to support space exploration
If all goes well, the Mars rover Perseverance will touch down as planned on the Red Planet sometime this afternoon and become the ninth American robotic explorer to successfully reach Martian shores since the Viking landers of the late 1970s. A doppelganger of Curiosity, the rover that landed on Mars in 2012, Perseverance also carries with it a small helicopter named Ingenuity that will help NASA determine whether it’s possible to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere. With luck, Perseverance will collect samples of Martian soil and seal them in tubes for return to Earth by a future mission carried out in collaboration with the European Space Agency sometime later this decade.
All in all, Perseverance is an impressive and unmistakable sign of American scientific ambition and technological prowess. Since the start of the space age in 1957, after all, only the United States has proven able to successfully land and operate robotic explorers on the Red Planet for any length of time. But it won’t be the only robotic explorer to reach Mars this month: the Hope orbiter launched by the United Arab Emirates entered orbit on February 9, while China’s Tianwen-1 mission did the same the next day. The Chinese orbiter carries its own rover, scheduled to descend to the Martian surface in May or June of this year. Though America remains the world’s leading spacefaring nation, it’s clear now that we face stiff competition from up-and-coming rivals around the globe – some of friendly, some of it more adversarial in nature.
Admittedly, it’s hard to see space exploration as a priority right now – defeating the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding America’s economy rightly take top billing these days. But there’s a clear need for liberal patriots to pay much closer attention to space than they have since then end of the Apollo era in the early 1970s. Within two weeks of President Biden’s swearing-in, for instance, reporters asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki about the new administration’s views on the Space Force – one of President Trump’s hobby-horses– and whether it would support NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon. Beyond an affirmative answer on Artemis, there have been other promising signals on space from the new administration: President Biden put an Apollo Moon rock on display in the Oval Office, while Vice President Kamala Harris recently thanked French President Emmanuel Macron for the French space agency’s contribution to the Perseverance rover.
Too often, though, progressives dismiss of the value of space exploration. They guffaw at the Space Force, and not without reason. More troublingly, they ignore the vast benefits space exploration itself brings to the United States. It’s a vacuum President Trump exploited to negative effect by creating and so heavily promoting the Space Force – a new military branch that addresses very real national security issues but ultimately heralds the transformation of space from what President John F. Kennedy called “a sea of peace” into “a new terrifying theater of war.” Suffice it to say, that’s not at all in the interests of the United States or humanity as a whole.
Even as they keep their feet planted firmly on the ground, then, liberal patriots ought to keep one eye on the stars. The reasons remain much the same as when JFK first articulated them at the dawn of the space age: national prestige, international politics, and substantial domestic investment in cutting-edge scientific research and technological development. These rationales deserve a closer look:
National prestige. It’s an oft overlooked and downplayed reason to support any policy, but national prestige remains central to the case for space exploration. More than fifty years after the fact, the Apollo Moon landings still stir pride at home and enhance American prestige abroad. In the decades since Apollo, America maintained its status as the world’s top spacefaring nation through the iconic space shuttle and International Space Station programs, the Voyager missions to the outer solar system, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the fleet of robotic rovers exploring the surface of Mars – and despite self-inflicted wounds like sequestration that likely hampered the development of new NASA human spaceflight programs and curtailed its robotic exploration ambitions.
Above all, though, space exploration burnishes American pride at home and prestige abroad by placing the United States at the leading edge of scientific discovery and human knowledge. Space exploration provides a concrete demonstration that America can carry out grand projects that expand the horizons of both the United States and humanity as a whole. In that respect, space exploration’s incalculable benefits far exceed its relatively modest financial costs.
International politics. It’s in America’s own interest – and the world’s as well – to ensure space remains a realm of peaceful competition, cooperation, and exploration rather than one of cutthroat military rivalry. As I’ve argued elsewhere, that interest is best served by active leadership in space through civilian agencies like NASA rather than military ones like the much-ballyhooed Space Force. But space exploration itself presents a unique opportunity for the United States to forge and maintain international scientific, technological, and industrial partnerships with close allies like Canada, Japan, and the members of the European Space Agency.
Indeed, America’s space exploration relationships have already helped create a nascent industrial and innovation ecosystem that spans the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These partners have already made valuable contributions to the International Space Station, providing some of the station’s research labs, launching supply missions, and sending astronauts to crew the station. This already-close collaboration will grow more intimate on the Artemis program, with ESA making service modules for NASA’s Orion crew vehicles and helping to build NASA’s Gateway space station in lunar orbit along with Canada and Japan.
Investment in scientific research and high-tech industry at home. It may be cliché to note that every dollar the United States spends on space exploration gets spent back here on Earth, but it happens to be true. Funding for space exploration provides two crucial economic benefits to the American people: first, it creates and supports good jobs in America’s aerospace industry – including roughly 17,000 workers at NASA and nearly 150,000 in private companies. Second, it invests in a high-tech community of engineering expertise that gives America a unique comparative industrial advantage in the global economy (aerospace remains one of the two advanced manufacturing industries in which the United States exports more than it imports) and holds the potential to drive technological innovation forward in unforeseeable directions. It’s an economic asset that the United States should not allow to wither from neglect or complacency.
Indeed, liberal patriots ought to embrace space exploration: it invests in high-tech industry and jobs at home, enhances America’s standing abroad, and appeals to the nation’s best traditions rather than its darker impulses. They’ve certainly got a rich heritage to draw on, from then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the creation of NASA to President Kennedy’s call to send American astronauts to Moon and return them safely to the Earth by the end of the 1960s – a promise President Johnson helped keep by funding the Apollo program amidst the turmoil of that decade.
Though America’s present-day space exploration aspirations don’t call for a commitment of national resources on the scale of Apollo, more funding will be required to return astronauts to the lunar surface by the end of this decade and send them on to Mars by the end of the 2030s while sustaining the world’s most ambitious robotic exploration program. America can probably achieve these goals by adding somewhere between $3 billion to $5 billion annually to NASA’s most recent budget request of just over $25 billion. That’s a small price to pay in order to maintain America’s standing as the world’s leading spacefaring nation.
Space exploration amounts to a highly visible sign of America’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and technological achievement – as well as a renewed sense of national possibility and faith in the future. Liberal patriots can take pride in the space exploration triumphs earned by their predecessors. But they cannot rest on their laurels, impressive as they remain after half a century. Instead, they ought to take the pen and write the next chapter in the story of America’s journey through the cosmos.