In Washington, as the age-old adage goes, budgets determine policy. That is certainly the case with space—and the ramifications for our national and economic security are enormous. If Congress fails to provide NASA with critical resources in future budget legislation, American space dominance will atrophy and we will all suffer the consequences.
As the administration and Congress negotiate marginal increases to NASA’s overall program request, a vacuum is being formed with peer competitor nations willing to step in. As a stark example, under current plans, the International Space Station is slated for decommissioning in 2025 even as China and India are forging ahead to design and construct permanent low Earth orbit outposts of their own. The potential end of life for the station is solely the result of funding, not the ability of NASA to maintain its operational status.
Strikingly, this potential blow to America’s spacefaring ambitions would coincide with the nation’s tentative scheduled return to the Moon. Despite yeoman's work to secure adequate resources, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is struggling to gain political support for his reinvigorated agency’s vision.
As Albert Einstein famously observed, not everything that counts can be counted. And conversely, not everything that can be counted actually counts. That is certainly the case with America’s investment in space exploration. In lieu of engaging in the myopia of the appropriations process, Congress and the administration should consider the broader context NASA has played—and is currently playing—in the development of the commercial space industry.
Amazingly, the totality of NASA funding from 1958 to the present day is on the order of one annual defense bill. And yet, the economic and cultural impact of the investment is beyond pecuniary measure. From farming to finance, American society today is fully dependent on space-enabled technology.
Beyond the intrinsic value of space-related investments, some decision-makers seem to have missed an additional elemental lesson. Similar to earlier eras of exploration, territory matters. Lost in the recent nostalgia of the Apollo 11 celebration is recognition that the United States is currently engaged in a contest more consequential than the space race of half a century ago. The South Lunar Pole is no different than the Yukon during the Gold Rush. The Moon boasts many exotic resources like helium-3 as a fusion energy source, but only in the frozen craters of the southern lunar surface will water be readily accessible to human inhabitants.
Where the American flag goes, our values will follow—including our commitment to preserving fairness and protecting physical and intellectual property. With current ambiguity regarding off-Earth ownership and operations likely to exist for some time, continued American stewardship of the space commons is essential. Right now, companies are accelerating upward and outward beyond Earth, and national and economic interests make imperative that this new frontier is properly settled, with rational rules of conduct.
But this future requires continued U.S. leadership and strategic investment. Flagship NASA endeavors such as the Space Launch System, Orion, Gateway, Artemis Lunar Lander, and the International Space Station must be fully funded to meet their requirements and operational capabilities. While new commercial space companies are bringing tremendous innovation to the market, American ambitions to return to the Moon cannot merely rely on privately funded ventures. The future viability of the emerging commercial sector is tightly tied to the success of ongoing civilian space programs. One cannot benefit at the expense of the other. If so, the nation as a whole will lose.
Despite the political rancor of Washington, space is a rare area of bipartisan policy agreement. But without Congress and the administration allocating robust resources, the budget pressures of today will sacrifice the nation’s future share of the coming trillion-dollar space economy.