Thursday, May 26, 2011

Logsdon Calls for Global Space Commitment

Dr. John M. Logsdon was a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and is the author of "John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon."

In a May 25 Orlando Sentinel guest editorial, space historian John Logsdon called for "a cooperative effort in exploring space" that "may well hold the key to making space exploration, with the United States in a catalyzing role, a truly global undertaking."

The editorial was published on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's famous speech to Congress in which he called for the United States to send a man to the Moon by the end of the 1960s and return him safely to Earth.

Logsdon is the author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, published last January. I reviewed the book in March, noting that it correctly debunked the mythology of Kennedy as a space visionary, and documented that his true interest was to show the world American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

Logsdon's column faults President Barack Obama for not taking a more leading stance in transitioning the government's human space flight program towards "a more innovative path."

Last year, President Barack Obama proposed a new approach to developing space exploration capabilities through increasing private-public partnerships and injecting new technologies into future launch vehicles and spacecraft. When widespread opposition to that approach appeared, rather than fight hard for his proposals, Obama last fall accepted a Senate-developed compromise that ratifies much of the spaceflight status quo of the past 40 years and mandates developing what has been described as a very large "rocket to nowhere."

This is not the way for this country to retain its "clearly leading role" in space. The systems developed in the next years will be the basis for the U.S. space program of at least the next quarter century. It is essential that wise choices of what to build are made before moving forward.

In 1961, Kennedy had the Cold War as leverage, and could accuse his proposal's opponents of being soft on Communism. Obama has no such leverage.

The members of Congress on today's space subcommittees seem more interested in directing government pork to their districts, and have shown their willingness to thumb their noses at the President on space regardless of their partisan stripe. Absent a compelling external threat, Obama doesn't have that kind of leverage.

I suggested in a May 25 column that an international space summit might be the way to give Obama leverage. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev informally speculated about such a summit in June 2010 but apparently didn't follow through, nor has anyone else.

Logsdon has the same idea. He recalled Kennedy's September 1963 speech to the United Nations which proposed the U.S. and USSR merge their Moon programs. Logsdon suggests Obama take the same approach:

With JFK's death, Apollo became a memorial to a slain young president, and Kennedy's cooperative proposal faded from memory. But as planning for 21st-century space exploration moves forward, his hope — that "the scientists and engineers of all the world ... work together in the conquest of space" — may well hold the key to making space exploration, with the United States in a catalyzing role, a truly global undertaking.

Inviting other world leaders to join the United States in committing their countries to a cooperative effort in exploring space would be a fitting way for President Obama to honor John F. Kennedy's space legacy of a half-century ago.

The only vulnerability I see in this approach is that, with the U.S. experiencing annual trillion-dollar deficits, it will be difficult to sell a major increase in government space spending to a Congress already bitterly divided on how to reduce the annual debt.

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