Judging from the reaction to Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement last week that the administration wants to establish a U.S. Space Force, the public doesn’t seem to care much about the great beyond, and certainly not an American dominance of it. We’ve become a nation largely of consumers of whatever the government can “give” us. The frontier calls only to a few. The Cold War is over (so we think), and the spirit of adventure that got us to the moon before the Soviet Union, Sputnik be damned, is gone.
But is American dominance of space really such a crazy idea? Some nation will be dominant, and surely it would be better for the United States to be that dominant nation. Not Russia, not China nor even North Korea. That early reaction may be merely that a United States Space Force is just another Trump idea for Democrats to rally against. Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut and the political-activist husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, told MSNBC that “The only person that I’ve heard say this is a fantastic idea is the commander in chief, the president of the United States. Everybody else says it’s redundant, it’s wasteful.”
Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat, told his Twitter following that “no Republican is willing to tell the president it’s a dumb idea.” He says a Space Force won’t happen, “and it’s dangerous to have a leader who cannot be talked out of crazy ideas.” But sometimes such a president can be a good thing. President John F. Kennedy couldn’t be talked out of the crazy idea of a moon shot in 1962, when it was sometimes dismissed as an expensive, crazy and maybe even dumb idea. JFK called the exploration of space “one of the great adventures of all time,” and he enabled the Apollo program that landed U.S. astronauts on the moon. “No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space,” he told an audience at Rice University.
Skepticism of crazy ideas have been overcome by bold and visionary men in earlier times than these. Prospective investors in Michigan were told in 1903 to stay away from Henry Ford and his horseless contraption. “The horse is here to stay,” said the president of Michigan Savings Bank, “but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.” The aide-de-camp of British Field Marshal Douglas Haig, as he watched a tank demonstration in Britain on the eve of World War I, concluded that “the idea that horse cavalry will be replaced by these iron coaches is absurd. It is little short of treason.”
Fleet Adm. William Leahy, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and a senior military adviser to President Truman, told the president early in World War II that the Manhattan Project was a waste of money. “That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done,” he said. “The atomic bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.” Even Albert Einstein had said “there is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable,” and The New York Times predicted smugly that “a rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.”
The race to dominate space continues, and the need to stay ahead was never more urgent. Vice President Pence made that clear with his announcement. “What was once peaceful and uncontested is now crowded and adversarial,” he said of a space environment that has changed “fundamentally” in a generation. Naming Russia and China as the instigators, Mr. Pence said “our adversaries have transformed space into a war-fighting domain.”
The last man to have visited the moon stepped off the lunar surface to come home in December of 1972, and no human has been back since. The administration wants America to return to the moon now, and the first human landing in nearly 50 years could touch down within the next decade.
“The essence of the American character is to explore new horizons and to tame new frontiers,” President Trump told a recent session of the National Space Council, which he revived after it had lain dormant for two decades. Critics argue that the Air Force is already protecting American interests in space. But the new Space Force will go beyond that.
In an address to Congress in 1961, President Kennedy challenged America to send astronauts to the moon and back before the end of the decade. Mr. Kennedy said that it’s “time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth.” That’s true in 2018 as well, and it’s not such a crazy idea at all.
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