Toward a New Moonshot

NASA
NASA (Photo credit: Luke Bryant)

William H. Gerstenmaier’s “Our Brick Moon” in the Summer 2012 issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly does a passing fair job at explaining some of the benefits America and mankind have derived from the International Space Station.
He talks about the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an instrument that allowed scientists aboard the ISS that is helping investigators in 16 countries to understand the composition of the universe. Space-grown superbugs have led to better vaccines, including a pathway to a vaccine for the virulent methicillin-resistant staph, or MRSA, that kills nearly 99,000 people in the US alone each year, and one for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy. Liquidmetal, an ISS-developed material with the strength of titanium and the moldable properties of plastic, has been licensed by Apple for better, lighter electronic devices.
He explains how the environmental control system developed for ISS recycles up to 80% of the water used by the crew, and an oxygen generation system that is totally self-contained. Aside from the implications for deep-space travel, there are lessons to be learned for an increasingly thirsty world. What is more, doing all of this taught NASA – and everyone involved with these projects – how to make multinational efforts work more smoothly in space and on the ground. As someone who has spent a quarter century running cross-cultural workplaces, I can attest this is no small triumph. Finally, the ISS has made possible a new era in government-private partnerships that have led to the development of promising firms like SpaceX, Orbital Systems, and dozens of subcontractors. A new space-economy is born.
It is a shame, however, that he stops here, because in doing so he either overreaches, underreaches, or both.
Let me explain.
America does not need lengthy eloquent justifications for money the nation has already spent on space. We get that. Microwave ovens, freeze-dried food, microprocessors, countless technical breakthroughs and the competitiveness that each of those innovations have bestowed on the nation were spinoffs of the space programs from Vanguard to the international space station. Open-sourcing the innovations that came out of nearly six decades of tax-payer funded effort was a part of the bargain that brought funds to NASA in the first place.
If, however, Mr. Gerstenmaier expects American taxpayers to continue their financial support of NASA manned space programs because of those benefits, he is mistaken. If he believes that he will get American taxpayers underwrite future manned space programs because of what Apollo did for computers, or the IIS as did for esoteric biomedical research, he overreaches. American taxpayers understand that past results do not guarantee future results.
Yet if he only wishes to extol the accomplishments of his pet programs he under reaches. What NASA needs more today than ever as for its senior administrators to explain to the American public why the United States still needs the space agency when its roads are crumbling for lack of highway funds.
America needs a vision for its space future. That vision needs goals, it needs a vision that incorporates a public–private partnership, but incorporates NASA’s role as a driver of key research, that frames benefits beyond those that are bestowed upon the largest government contractors, that lays out the programs in the payoffs therefrom, gives a timeline, and provides practical route of funding.

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