About a week after it was announced that Eileen Collins would appear at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, the aerospace community was abuzz with questions and concerns. A brilliant astronaut and the first woman to command a space shuttle, Collins has an excellent reputation among the NASA flight controllers, astronauts and engineers who have worked with her. Why would she jump into the political fray, many asked? And for Donald Trump, of all people?
I felt the answer was quite simple. Like many astronauts, Collins has a military background (she is a colonel in the United States Air Force) and is therefore more of a political conservative. Perhaps she had conversations with the Trump people, and they endorsed her view that NASA should return to the moon before going to Mars. At least it’s not like she’s the first former astronaut to get involved in politics (Hello, John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt).
So on a night when Ted Cruz stole the show at the Political Observers’ Convention, Collins’ four-minute speech garnered the most attention from the aerospace industry. Her remarks were largely a pretty standard call to restore some glory to the US space program, talking about how it was unacceptable to rely on Russia for transportation to the international space program for the past five years. America can and must do better than that, Collins said.
“Nations that lead on the frontier lead in the world, and we need that visionary leadership again, leadership that will inspire the next generation of explorers to have the same passion,” Collins said. “We need leadership that puts America’s space program first again. Yes. And we need leadership that makes America great again.”
Politically, there was some doubt that Collins was supposed to explicitly support Trump at the end of her speech, which she did not. But what interested me most—and ultimately disappointed me—was Collins’ time-worn, Cold War-era perception of NASA and what makes America’s space effort truly great in the 21st century.
In some ways, NASA has never been better. The solar system exploration program, multiple rovers on Mars, a new mission to Jupiter and the recent flyby of Pluto are things the rest of the world can’t match. The same goes for the agency’s astrophysics and Earth observation programs.
It is also absolutely true that the space agency has relied on Russia for transportation to the station since 2011, and indeed NASA faces many questions about the viability of its human spaceflight program. NASA has taken a big-budget, big-rocket approach that focuses on Mars as its ultimate destination. But the space agency currently lacks the funding to implement this plan, and a Trump administration would have to pump a lot of money into a government program that some have criticized as a “socialist plan” for space exploration.
It doesn’t seem likely that the future of American spaceflight lies in recreating the Apollo moment that climaxed 47 years ago with the Apollo 11 moon landing. That was a phenomenal achievement, but the Cold War is over and we will never again spend 5 percent of the country’s budget on spaceflight promoting American exceptionalism. Moreover, we live in a multipolar world. NASA’s most meaningful achievements today are accomplished with the help of international partners. NASA leads, sure, but it’s stronger with other nations at its side.
Why exclude commercial spaceflight?
However, this is what Collins really missed Wednesday night. Yes, NASA relies on Russia. But within a few years, the country will have not one, but two commercial vehicles traveling from American soil to the space station, manufactured by SpaceX and Boeing. Despite the bleak picture Collins painted on stage in Cleveland, there’s an incredible vibrancy to the American launch industry trying to catch up with the rest of the world. NASA isn’t driving this drive to build modern, low-cost rockets – all-American capitalism is.
Probably the most exciting space development of the last decade has been the successful pursuit of reusable rockets by SpaceX and Blue Origin. These cheap rockets will eventually make America bigger in space. Successful entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have invested billions of their own dollars into the aerospace industry, and their vision isn’t to pick a few of the best and brightest like Collins to send out on missions to space. By cutting launch costs, they aim to put thousands, and eventually millions, of people in orbit and beyond. Musk wants to send them to Mars. Bezos wants to move production and resource extraction from planet Earth.
It’s not clear if either will succeed, but preliminary tests of their hardware show that the two tech billionaires are building launch systems and spacecraft that are comparable to or better than NASA’s — and at a fraction of the cost. To their credit, some at NASA are realizing the important role private space will play in the future. The agency has nurtured the commercial crew program to replace the space shuttle, increasingly positioning the station as a way for companies to test orbit business models.
But audiences have to recognize this too, which is why I was disappointed by Collins and her yearning for the Apollo era on such a big stage. The reality is that the best way to “lead at the frontier” in the 21st century is not through flags and footprints, but by sending humans into space to stay in a sustainable way, with the ultimate goal of making space profitable to make. One would hope that Donald J. Trump, if elected president, would recognize such capitalism when he sees it.