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Will the U.S. Continue to ‘Reach for the Stars’?

3Qs with Associate Professor of Political Science William Kay
April 26th, 2011

With the space shuttle pro­gram winding down — Dis­covery returned from its final mis­sion in March, Endeavor is sched­uled for its last flight this Friday, and Atlantis should launch at the end of June — observers are won­dering about the future of the U.S. space pro­gram. Will there be room for any kind of ambi­tious space pro­gram, given the state of the U.S. economy? Will space flight move increas­ingly toward pri­va­ti­za­tion? As former Florida con­gressman James Bac­chus, one of the prin­cipal con­gres­sional spon­sors of the Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, wrote in The Hill’s Con­gress Blog in March, there has been “utter bipar­tisan failure thus far to figure out what to do next in human space flight, how to make it work, and how to pay for it at a price our chosen leaders think we can afford.” Here, Asso­ciate Professor of Polit­ical Sci­ence William Kay, an expert on the his­tory and pol­i­tics of the space pro­gram, offers some predictions.

What do you think will happen to the future of space exploration? Will it increase or decrease or plateau, or change in some other way?

In the short run, there will be little change overall. Human space flight mis­sions will con­tinue to the Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, using Russian Soyuz space­craft for trans­porta­tion. In the long run — moving beyond ISS or mis­sions to the Moon or Mars — the direc­tion and pace of space explo­ration depends almost entirely on devel­op­ments in the rel­e­vant tech­nolo­gies, par­tic­u­larly those related to launches.

Do you think privatization of space exploration is a good idea?

Most of the move­ment toward pri­va­ti­za­tion — which has actu­ally been under way since the Reagan Admin­is­tra­tion — I have found to be, on the whole, a pos­i­tive devel­op­ment. Unfor­tu­nately, there have also been cases — the most notable being NASA’s deci­sion to con­tract out shuttle main­te­nance — where the results have been any­thing but pos­i­tive. In any event, pri­va­ti­za­tion is clearly the trend of the future.

One of the great suc­cess sto­ries in the devel­op­ment of the “space market” has been the com­mer­cial launch sector. In 1981, when the first pri­vately devel­oped rocket was launched, every­thing sent into space up to that point was the work of a gov­ern­ment. By 2000, the com­mer­cial launch industry, made up of dozens of firms from almost as many coun­tries, had become a billion-​​dollar busi­ness. Now, every­thing sent into space, with the par­tial excep­tion of the shuttle, is launched by a pri­vate com­pany. More firms, including a number inter­ested in offering “space tourism,” are expected to join the effort in years to come.

Just how important is it that we “reach for the stars” — especially when the economy is in such dire straits?

Speaking of the economy, one small advan­tage a tra­di­tional, government-​​run space pro­gram has over the pri­va­tized approach is that the former is rel­a­tively more recession-​​proof.

With respect to “reaching for the stars,” it is very impor­tant that we, as a country, have a clear and con­sis­tent set of pri­or­i­ties. In gen­eral, I think a great nation should devote some of its resources toward the “lofty and ambi­tious” — which need not be as gar­gan­tuan as the Apollo pro­gram. On the other hand, I think “great­ness” also means acknowl­edging and rec­og­nizing those occa­sions — hope­fully few in number and short in dura­tion — where the imme­diate needs of cit­i­zens requires the post­poning of these loftier pursuits.

- Courtesy of Northeastern News


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