Saturday, April 4, 2009

U.S. Leadership in Space

Given the changes occurring in global space activities, an issue that came up frequently was the United States' leadership in space activities. Does the United States need to increase funding to ensure it remains the leader in space? Should it recognize that it's too expensive or just unnecessary to maintain its advantage in this environment, and allow other nations, like China, to take the lead? Is there some kind of middle ground? There were proponents of each of these theories.

Maintain Leadership: Some felt that it is essential that the United States maintains its strategic leadership in space activities. This feeling was particularly strong in areas of national security. Proponents argued the military benefit of having the most technologically advanced force in the world is essential, and to lose that advantage could have a serious impact on our security. In areas such as exploration, America's leadership is seen as central to its national prestige. The United States is a nation of leaders, and some believe that identity is essential to its society.

Leadership Unnecessary/Impossible: Another attitude was that the United States should stop clinging to the out-dated idea that it must be the leader. Some believed that given the pace of other nations, such as China and India, this would be a futile effort - other countries will catch up and overtake our capabilities in some areas. It's possible China will beat the United States to the Moon or to Mars, but that's not seen as a problem within this group. Others felt that it would be more (cost) effective for the United States to focus on partnering with other nations, rather than leading. Future trips to the Moon or to Mars should be a global effort, not something done competitively on a country-by-country basis. The United States should stop putting money into keeping ahead of other nations in space security and other areas, and instead should work with others to benefit from their investments.

Middle Ground: This is where my personal opinion on this matter lies. I recognize that the space community is changing - new countries are getting involved and advancing rapidly. I think that's great, more activity and investment in space is exciting and moves us forward as a world. I do think the United States should try harder to engage international partners and cooperate to combine efforts and investments, avoiding redundancy and allowing the world to do more with less. I recognize that some technologies and capabilities are sensitive, but I think these need to be carefully identified, so that cooperation can take place in all other areas. This helps us to avoid the situation where our space industry is at a disadvantage due to regulations that require extensive bureaucracy to acquire technologies from U.S. companies, while the same technologies can be acquired from other nations without these issues. (Oh, ITAR.)

However, I also believe that the United States' leadership in space activites is why it is one of the most exciting countries to be in for working on these activities. I think for the United States to give up its leadership identity and fall into the background would be a mistake. Luckily, I don't believe leadership and partnership are mutually exclusive. I think the United States should remain a major player in space activities, and should continue to elaborate a strategic vision for the future, while still partnering with other nations. Maybe the United States doesn't need to (or can't?) be the leader in every area of space, but it should strive to lead in areas where it has strategic strengths. I think the United States should always be a part of any global effort to explore the universe, and should help to develop the vision for the future. It just doesn't have to do it alone.

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