Second Place is No Place to Be

Posted February 8, 2021

The United States is facing unprecedented challenges to reunite a fractured electorate and find solutions to complex societal, healthcare, and economic problems.  Setting priorities among them is a daunting undertaking.  Virtually all the proposed programs require funding from Congress and support within the Administration.  Given the limited budgets for discretionary projects, the country can all too easily fall prey to putting off decisions today that may have profound adverse consequences in later years.

One such deferred decision with potentially dire consequences was announced last week with very little press coverage.

Recent press reports indicate that NASA has announced it is postponing until April 30, 2021 its decision to award a contract to one of three bidders for the development of a human lunar landing system.  The new timing is more than two months after the initially scheduled February date.  The official reason given by NASA was it needed more time to evaluate the proposals it has had in hand for months.

But some wonder if NASA’s decision is more about policy changes and lack of funding.  In December, Congress allocated $850 million to the project.  NASA needs an estimated $3.2 billion to complete it.  So current funding is far short of what is required.  There is also talk that the Biden administration may not be fully committed to NASA’s Artemis program to put a man on the Moon by the end of 2024.  As we know from past delays in the United States space program, each delay pushes the program back exponentially.  Given this new delay in NASA grant of the final contract and doubts surrounding funding and commitment, it may mean the prospect of putting an American on the Moon will be many years away.  How those delays impact the U.S. goal to send a manned mission to Mars by 2033 remains to be seen.   And while the Administration reacted to those concerns with additional assurances that it continues to support the Artemis program, those assurances are hollow without the commitment to fund the project and successfully land a man or woman on the Moon within the next few years.

Why does this matter?

China is investing billions in its space program.  Far more than the United States.  It has been successful in three lunar landings in the past ten years, including one on the far side of the Moon and another in December that brought back the first samples from the Moon since NASA’s Apollo program in the ‘70’s.  The United States last landed on the Moon in 1972 and has not sent an orbiter to our closest celestial neighbor since 2013.  Since 2013, China has been successful in six orbital missions to the Moon.  China has announced plans to send a manned mission to the Moon by 2025 and to Mars by 2045.  In the next few weeks, China will land a probe on Mars and begin exploring the planet.  Interestingly, both the U.S. and the UAE also have landers scheduled to set foot on Mars in the weeks ahead.  So the skies are getting crowded over the Red Planet.

Many of us remember the panic in the ‘60’s when the U.S. realized it was behind the Russians in the space race.  With inspiration from then-President John F. Kennedy and money from Congress, the U.S. won that race.  As we read NASA press releases and see Congressional and Administration support for the space program possibly waning, we can’t help but wonder, in the face of China’s clear intent to get to the Moon and beyond, if we’ll again face the panic of falling behind (assuming we have not already done so).  And this time, against a country that has been very successful in its space program and willing to spend whatever it takes to win.

Space is no longer simply a place to explore out of curiosity and wonder.  Today, it represents a critical strategic component to defense and communications.  We and our political adversaries use it to spy on one another.  Satellite systems are integral to telecommunications, air traffic control, weather predicting, and more.  The. U.S, China, and other nations look at the Moon as both a commercial mining venture and a platform for deeper space exploration.  Whoever first establishes a base on the Moon will be in control of virtually any venture into space from Earth.  Add the possibility of colonizing the Moon for military purposes and the nightmare scenario only worsens.

Is now the time to delay?  Is cutting funding a wise policy?  Only time will tell.

Then again, I suppose my speculation may be melodramatic and paranoid.  Or not.

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