Fri. Feb 3rd, 2023
Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this year.
Enlarge / Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this year.


If President Donald Trump has had one consistent message about space exploration, both during his campaign and during his presidency, it’s that America is doing poorly in space. About a year ago, during a campaign stop in Daytona Beach, Florida, Trump said, “Look what’s happened to our entire history of space travel and leadership. Look what’s going on, people. We’re like a third world country.”

As Vice President Mike Pence has taken on space policy duties, he has made a respectable effort to visit NASA and Air Force facilities across the country. But during these visits, he also repeated this message from Debbie Downer. Speaking Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center, Pence said America will take the lead in space no fewer than eight times under the Trump administration.

The subtext here is that America has fallen far behind in space — and it needs strong leadership to get back on its feet. While there are certainly significant problems with US space policy – starting with the lack of a clear direction for human spaceflight and the funding to support those goals – no other country in space can come close to the United States . Furthermore, because of the long lead times baked into space development, almost every “achievement” demonstrating US leadership in space over the next 3.5 years will have begun well before President Trump took office.

That said, here’s an overview of how America is already leading in space.

Most powerful missiles

With the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the most powerful rocket in the world is now the Delta IV Heavy, manufactured and flown by the Colorado-based United Launch Alliance. It can lift 28.8 tons to low Earth orbit. Almost everything about the rocket, from the fairing to the engines, is American-made. Since its first flight in 2003, the Delta IV Heavy has flown nine successful missions without any problems. The world’s second most powerful booster is China’s Long March 5 rocket, with a capacity of 25 tons in low Earth orbit. It has only flown twice: once with success and once with catastrophic failure.

Soon, probably by the end of this year, California-based SpaceX will debut its Falcon Heavy rocket. According to the company, this rocket will have a carrying capacity of up to 63.8 tons to low Earth orbit. Around 2019 or 2020, NASA should fly its Space Launch System rocket, with a capacity of 70 tons. Around the same time, Washington-based Blue Origin plans to launch the 45-ton lift New Glenn rocket. No other missile developed in any other country will come close to this carrying capacity.


NASA has successfully landed eight of nine missions to the surface of Mars, culminating with the 1-ton Curiosity lander in 2012. Only the Mars Polar Lander in 1999 failed to reach the surface safely. the decade, and SpaceX may also send one or two private, uncrewed missions to Mars.

No other country can remotely boast of such a record. Four of the Soviet Union’s five landers failed to reach Mars safely, and the one that did, Mars 3 in 1971, only survived for about 15 seconds. In addition, there have been a number of failed Soviet and Russian attempts to reach the Martian moon Phobos. Europa also attempted to land a spacecraft on Mars twice, and both were lost in the process.

Outer planets

NASA has explored the outer solar system with Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, the Galileo and now Juno missions to the Jupiter system, Cassini to Saturn and New Horizons to Pluto and beyond. It’s amazing to think about that each single probe NASA has sent to the outer solar system has been a success. In this, NASA has a perfect track record with missions that no other space agency has ever attempted. The US also has numerous other missions on its way to their targets, or in development, including more asteroid probes and a lander for Jupiter’s intriguing moon Europa.

In contrast, Russia has not had a successful interplanetary mission in more than three decades since the 1984 launch of Vega 2, a probe to Venus and Comet Halley. In addition, the Soviet Union and Russia have never flown beyond Mars.

The European Space Agency has participated in two NASA missions that have gone beyond the asteroid belt. The first, Ulysses, made two distant flybys of Jupiter on a mission primarily focused on observing the sun. NASA managed the development of the second mission, Cassini, which has been spectacularly observing the Saturn system for the past decade. As part of that mission, the European Space Agency’s Titan lander was largely successful.

Reusable rocket technology

Thanks to commercial investment, as well as NASA’s support for SpaceX through commercial crew and cargo contracts, the United States has a definitive lead in what is probably the most exciting new technology in spaceflight: vertical takeoff and vertical landing of rocket boosters. The promise of these reusable launchers is cheap, frequent access to space and the opening of the frontier for commercialization, national security and perhaps settlement.

An Air Force University study recently found that the United States has a definitive lead in these technologies thanks to SpaceX and Blue Origin, but the study warned that countries like China could copy these ideas and surpass the United States if no strategic public investments are made. .


Amazon founder Jeff Bezos alone is putting about $1 billion of his own money into his rocket company Blue Origin. In 2015, Google invested $900 million in SpaceX. Taking venture capital into account, we can conservatively estimate that private investors are now pouring about $2 billion a year into the US aerospace industry. Compare that to Russia’s annual budget for all space activities, including the maintenance of decades-old missiles, which is about $2 billion a year.

This is the “secret sauce” of America’s space success: billions of dollars flow into new, innovative ideas for spaceflight and space activities. Other countries have nationalized space programs, with large bureaucracies. America has that with NASA (which is funded to a far greater extent than any other government program). But it also has untethered capital chasing dreams, such as asteroid mining.

NASA has also nurtured this process. It has opened up its segment of the International Space Station for research and as a platform to launch cubesats. It has helped Bigelow Aerospace test a new inflatable space habitat. NASA has supported companies like Made in Space to experiment with manufacturing in space. Finally, through its commercial cargo and crew programs, NASA has enabled private companies such as SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing and Sierra Nevada to develop a new, modern fleet of spacecraft.

The reality

NASA gets a bad name for the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, and it has indeed been painful to rely on Russia for a ride to the International Space Station ever since. However, this does not mean that NASA has relinquished leadership in spaceflight. Within two years, the United States should have not one but two human-rated spacecraft: SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner. This will be thanks to a program originally devised by the George W. Bush administration and aggressively pursued by President Obama, despite opposition from some Republicans in Congress. In addition, a deep space capsule, Orion, may be ready for humans by 2023.

For all its “America will lead the space again” talk, the Trump administration has the potential to do some good with its revitalized National Space Council. When he didn’t say America was lagging behind in space, Pence noted many of the achievements of the US commercial space industry on Thursday.

If the new administration standardizes and simplifies regulations for these companies, enables NASA and the US military to make wise investments, sets achievable goals for human spaceflight, embraces international partners instead of excluding them with an “America first” attitude , and eradicating planetary exploration without Earth science, America’s already significant lead in space exploration may become insurmountable.

By akfire1

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