In this week’s issue of The Space Review I report on Mike Griffin’s defense of the current exploration architecture that he made in a speech last month. This is an expanded version of a post here on the speech, with a review of the logic that NASA followed under Griffin that led to the current two-vehicle shuttle-derived approach, as well as some of the current questions about the architecture such as the thrust oscillation issue.
The last part of the article goes into a slightly different direction, bringing up a familiar topic: whether the US is somehow falling behind China and other countries in human spaceflight. Griffin notes that China is developing the capabilities that could allow them to send humans to the Moon, while Russia already has virtually all of the pieces other than a lander and, now that the country is in better economic health, “can pretty much do it” within a half-dozen years of starting. As for the importance of all this, Griffin said, “I consider it to be impossible that other nations will be leading in space and the US still regarded has having primacy in the world. If other nations are leading in space, then the United States will be like Spain or Holland: once great, but no longer important in the affairs of humankind.”
Is that necessarily the case? Would the US lose its leadership in world affairs if other nations took a leading role in space (where “leading in space” is apparently defined by the achievements of human spaceflight)? It would probably depend on the circumstances: an ignominious collapse of a post-shuttle architecture, with nothing to replace it, could be a blow to national prestige on the global stage. On the other hand, a deliberate decision to, say, turn human spaceflight over to the private sector and focus government programs on key issues facing the nation and world today (like climate change, alternative energies, biotechnology, etc.) might be perceived quite differently, and could even enhance US leadership globally. The “human spaceflight = global leadership” argument worked during the 1960s, but may not be nearly as clear and effective in the 2010s and beyond.