Trump’s goal to reach the moon isn’t out of this world ‘We’re in a space race to­day, and the stakes are even higher’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Jon Jus­tice

ow, make no mis­take about it: We’re in a space race to­day, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” said a stern Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, who chairs the Na­tional Space Coun­cil, at the coun­cil’s March 26 gath­er­ing.

The vice pres­i­dent is right. While space ex­plo­ration car­ried a cer­tain weight of im­por­tance dur­ing the Cold War, cur­rent tech­nol­ogy and in­ter­na­tional am­bi­tions have mul­ti­plied that thread to­day sev­eral times over.

Many will mock its im­por­tance. De­trac­tors of Pres­i­dent Trump act like its straight out of a sci­ence fic­tion novel, but make no mis­take, outer space is grad­u­ally mor­ph­ing into the war-fight­ing do­main of the fu­ture.

China has been work­ing over­time to weaponize space. Last De­cem­ber, it be­came the first nation to land on the far side of the moon, and se­nior U.S. de­fense of­fi­cials worry that the coun­try’s mil­i­tary can now tar­get Amer­i­can satel­lites from deep space ground sta­tions that it has cre­ated.

Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of State for Arms Con­trol, Rus­sia for its part has been en­gag­ing in a “dis­turb­ing” pur­suit of counter space ca­pa­bil­i­ties, with the coun­try un­veil­ing “six new ma­jor of­fen­sive weapons sys­tems.”

Although it may feel that the United States is lag­ging by com­par­i­son, Mr. Pence re­mains vig­i­lant but not wor­ried. He as­tutely pointed out that when the first space race be­gan 62 years ago, the Soviet Union took an early lead but “we re­fused to ac­cept a fu­ture in space writ­ten by the en­e­mies of free­dom.” In­stead, “12 years later, the ‘one gi­ant leap’ oc­curred. We achieved our goal of Amer­i­can lead­er­ship in space.”

The cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion un­der­stands that with the right di­rec­tion, Amer­i­can in­no­va­tion and in­ge­nu­ity al­ways pre­vails. Pri­or­i­ties of the past White House ad­min­is­tra­tions, which al­lowed other coun­tries to gain a leg up, are thank­fully long gone. With the cur­rent vice pres­i­dent and NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine now un­leash­ing the sup­pressed mar­ket forces within the in­dus­try, Amer­ica will come on top again in no time at all.

That is why the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion set a goal of get­ting the United States back to the moon and stay­ing there for good: To beat the other rogue na­tions that are try­ing to op­er­a­tional­ize it for rea­sons that are far from in­nocu­ous.

Un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, not much went right with NASA, but thank­fully the one thing that did will help greatly in achiev­ing the White House’s cur­rent ob­jec­tive. In 2014, NASA be­gan build­ing the Space Launch System (SLS), the one rocket that will al­low the United States to reach the moon be­fore the end of the decade. When fin­ished, it will of­fer more pay­load mass and vol­ume ca­pa­bil­ity than any ex­ist­ing launch ve­hi­cle, all while be­ing the largest rocket ever con­structed by NASA that can sat­isfy the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s deep space am­bi­tions.

But Amer­ica will never beat rogue na­tions back to the moon if NASA does not stand be­hind the Space Launch System and make fin­ish­ing it in a timely fash­ion a pri­or­ity. That is why in his re­marks, Mr. Pence called for the agency to “ac­cel­er­ate the Space Launch System” — be­cause with­out it, the United States has no fall­back op­tions in place.

NASA has ex­pe­ri­enced some com­ple­tion de­lays with the Space Launch System, which were ex­pected since no one, com­mer­cially or oth­er­wise, has ever built any­thing even re­motely sim­i­lar to it. But these set­backs should mo­ti­vate NASA to dou­ble its ef­forts in fin­ish­ing the rocket and com­plet­ing the mis­sion it­self.

With­out the Space Launch System, reach­ing the moon again will be ac­tu­ally be left up al­most ex­clu­sively to sci­ence fic­tion nov­els. Jim Bri­den­s­tine’s ex­ten­sive two-week re­view on the up­com­ing moon mis­sion, com­pleted at the end of March, con­firmed this, de­mon­strat­ing that no other rock­ets cur­rently fall “within [NASA’s] time­line and ob­jec­tive” for their goals, which “reaf­firmed [NASA’s] com­mit­ment to the SLS.”

The clock is tick­ing, as China is planning to un­der­cut the United States’ ef­forts by launch­ing a rocket they ex­plic­itly state will be larger than SLS by 2028. The Space Launch System may be Amer­ica’s life­line in the space race, but it is one that must be com­pleted on time if it is to suc­ceed. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is say­ing the right things but now must act to en­sure that NASA has all of the re­sources it needs to com­plete the project on time and get Amer­ica back to the moon be­fore Amer­ica’s adversarie­s do. The coun­try’s na­tional se­cu­rity de­pends on it.

The cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion un­der­stands that with the right di­rec­tion, Amer­i­can in­no­va­tion and in­ge­nu­ity al­ways pre­vails. Pri­or­i­ties of the past White House ad­min­is­tra­tions, which al­lowed other coun­tries to gain a leg up, are thank­fully long gone.

Jon Jus­tice is au­thor of “Em­bark.” He is a ra­dio host in Min­neapolisSa­int Paul, Min­nesota and host of the “My Nerd World: A Star Wars Pod­cast.”

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