President Trump’s announcement that he wants to establish a “Space Force” similar to the U.S. Air Force has generated some excitement.
Among the skeptics, though, there is a joke circulating the the people most excited about the space force are those who don’t believe in science. I can’t claim credit for this joke, but it’s a good one. And in reality, it has something to say about this proposal.
The space force concept is actually something that has circulated for some time among policy-makers. The problem is that our space program is split into a number of entities. Of course there’s NASA, but even beyond that, the Army, Navy and Air Force all have military space programs. That’s not even counting the intelligence services such as CIA and NSA. The result is a lack of coordination and, at least in theory, duplicate efforts.
What’s more is that this idea is not unprecedented. Back in the 1970s, President Carter established the Department of Energy in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo. Many of us have memories of Carter putting solar panels on the White House roof, urging people to lower their thermostats, and lowering the speed limit, all with the aim of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. As a result, there is this perception that the Department of Energy deals with oil exploration and production as well as efficiency efforts.
In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Ironically, now Secretary of Energy Rick Perry up until recently shared this misconception, and he was quite surprised after he was appointed to the Cabinet position to find out what the Department actually does. In fact, when he was running for President in 2012, he called for the department to be abolished. It was quite embarrassing during a debate when he could not remember the name of the department he now heads.
Anyway, Perry now believes the department is essential. And he has good reason to. The real job of the Department of Energy is the maintenance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. At one point, that responsibility was split between the different branches of the military. Establishing this department put the entire effort under one roof.
Doing something similar with our scattered space forces makes sense, in theory. After all, the Department of Energy has done a very good job with its mission. The fact that most people don’t know what it really does speaks to its effectiveness. If our nuclear stockpile was poorly maintained, we would certainly know about it.
The problem with our space program, however, is not its organization. It is its funding. Currently, the space program only gets one half of one percent of the federal budget. That amount has been in steady decline since the program peaked at the height of the Apollo program in 1966, when it made up 4.4 percent of the federal budget.
What’s more is that on a real basis, federal funding has been declining of late. As recently as 2010, the program topped $20 billion (in 20104 dollars). Since then, we’ve been lucky if we break $17 billion in funding.
This fiscal policy has been disastrous on a number of fronts, and it has led to some decisions that can only be described as “bad.” For example, we spent over $100 billion to build a space station orbiting the earth. Its construction and occupation have been one of the great engineering accomplishments of this era. The budget has been so cut, however, that there is virtually no money available for the experiments that would justify this investment. It is not hyperbole to call it a “white elephant” at this time.
So much could have been done with it. Aside from a multitude of experiments regarding both space and earth, it could have served as a staging platform for missions aiming to return to the moon and eventually reach Mars. But after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, we made a decision to discontinue the shuttle program without a replacement program in place. As a result, we now must rely upon relatively small Russian vehicles to take our astronauts to the station, and unmanned rockets to take payload there. Neither of these can match the capacity of the Space Shuttle.
Ironically, many of the same people who now applaud the idea of a space force because President Trump proposed it are the same people who have fought to cut the space budget. There are several reasons for this, but the most compelling is probably the fact that space research can be used as a basis to understand climate change. Unfortunately, Washington is now controlled by people who don’t want to know the facts about this.
The truth is that space is a great investment. One report concluded that space spending through the Apollo program brought to Americans a 33% rate of return. The journal Nature reported that “The economic benefits of NASA’s programs are greater than generally realized. The main beneficiaries (the American public) may not even realize the source of their good fortune. . .” Study after study has concluded that space investment is one of the best programs we can spend federal money on. And yet we keep cutting it.
That analysis doesn’t even take into consideration the strategic importance of our space program. One area of manufacturing where the U.S. continues to dominate the world is aviation. The entire European community tries to compete with Airbus against America’s Boeing, and that doesn’t even consider other aviation products we manufacture. A big part of the reason we are so successful in this field is because of the basic science the space program contributes.
Our lives have been made better as a result of space program research. Medical discoveries galore come out of the effort to keep people alive in space. Many of our impressive military technologies come out of space program research. Even many everyday consumer products owe their existence to the space program.
Conservatives appear to oppose space program research because they fear it may provide additional evidence that carbon dioxide emissions from humans leads to global warming. Liberals argue that we should not be spending money on space when our schools need money. In reality, both are short-sighted false choices.
Investments in space more than pay for themselves, and for us to continue our long-term economic growth that has been fueled by technology, we need the research space generates.
Trump’s idea of a space force is laughable not because the idea of a space force is laughable. His idea is ridiculous because it amounts to simply moving around chairs and giving people new titles. What will actually make a difference is a more serious, long-term commitment to space investment. That would be a serious proposal worthy of serious consideration, quite different from Trump’s silly vision.