San Francisco - Dec 18, 2002
As Republicans celebrate their historic win in the mid-term elections, it will be easy to forget that little has changed. The nation remains evenly divided and Congress remains closely split. We are still a nation at war with ourselves.
The Democrats are fighting defensive battles to preserve hard-fought social gains of the past. However important, that does not constitute a positive electoral message. Democrats desperately need a forward-looking cause that the entire nation can rally around, a cause that unites, yet one that does not sell out their core beliefs.
There is such a cause. It is a dream that the Democrats once embraced and somehow lost. It is a call whose beginnings thrilled the nation, created jobs, and a high technology economy that every one of us benefits from to this date.
That cause should be nothing less than opening wide John F. Kennedy's "this new ocean."
We should explore the inner Solar System. In areas that do not have native ecosystems, we should establish early colonies. We should start the beginnings of trade -- raw resources needed by the Space Station and applications satellites, rare minerals, and knowledge, in exchange for the complex technologies and manufactured goods needed from Earth. In short, we must create a new civilization, much as the United States was created out of the old countries of Europe.
Such a cause plays to key Democratic strengths. Achieving it will require government investments in civilian endeavors on a far grander scale than most Republicans would ever condone. The American continent was not colonized without government help, and neither will the new frontier.
At their best, Democrats are idealists, vying to create a better, more fair society. The United States' Constitution could never have been written in the established societies of the old world. It was written surrounded by the open horizons of new territories. Just as Europe today is a better place for having watched and participated in the American experiment, the new ideas developed "out there" will have profound positive impacts on the social dialog back home.
An expansive space effort could advance many Democratic causes and interests, while also advancing the nation as a whole. More than anything else, the economy needs to put more people to work. Great aerospace projects employ large numbers on the ground, and not just the highly skilled. Giving young people constructive, hopeful jobs that lead to dramatic futures could ameliorate many social ills.
The Apollo project was a catalyst for more and better education for all. Historically, culture, science, and the arts thrive in expansionist times. A fresh wind of discoveries and images blows away mental cobwebs and tired routines. No truly healthy society can long exist as a closed system.
Using such a cause to achieve important social goals is very much in the Democrat's tradition. It may be forgotten by today's southern Republicans, but Lyndon Johnson used Apollo to help industrialize the south and to bond the nation more closely together.
An expansionist space policy could again prove popular in many southern states. Bill Clinton inherited a discredited International Space Station on the edge of cancellation and gave it a social purpose to which moderates in both parties could subscribe -- helping to tie the Russians into the global economy.
The time is ripe. With the Space Station, we have proven that we can build complex structures in space and live there for extended periods. A new generation of cheaper and safer heavy lift launch vehicles is being introduced.
Deep space propulsion is in the midst of a little-noticed renaissance. New cryogenic upper stages have been designed, solar sails are in development, and electric "ion" drives are now fully operational.
With these tools and a determined effort -- and a willingness to take measured risks -- adapted Space Station designs and hardware could quickly be sent to Earth's moon. An initial polar science base might be possible within one four-year term. Eight years could see us exploring and learning how to extract resources from the Martian moons and nearby asteroids.
As on Earth, the key resource is water. The initial goal would be to deliver extraterrestrial water into low Earth orbit. Because of Earth's gravity, this can be done far more cheaply than delivering water from Earth.
Once near Earth, the water would be split into hydrogen and oxygen to provide propulsion for communications, environmental, scientific, and other satellites. It would also supply air, drinking water, and fuel for the Space Station, and the new ships heading out into the unknown.
It won't be easy, but, as Kennedy said, we chose to do these things, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Advocating an expansionist future involves great political risk, but the conservative "rock no boats" strategy the Democrats have been following is not working. Americans want a positive, exciting vision of the future, not simply a defense of the gains, however important, from yesterday's battles.
Every time the moon rises, the cause the Democrats so clearly need stares them in the face. Now, all they need is another charismatic Democrat courageous enough to make it her own.
Is anyone out there?
Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco. He is an unrepentant Democrat. An abridged version of this article appeared in a recent issue of Space News
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Small Steps Keep Us Grounded
Scottsdale - Nov 22, 2002
NASA's recent budget request is uninspiring, reactive and constraining - and just what the doctor ordered. Agency Administrator Sean O'Keefe has apparently realized that our grandiose dreams of near-term space triumphs are simply shattered, leaving us - government, industry and advocacy alike - with the unglamorous work of living within our means, delivering on our promises, and slowly building a new space infrastructure, one that, this time, can last, writes John Carter McKnight.
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