Energy vs. space

That’s the topic of an article in this week’s issue of The Space Review that I wrote about the potential risk to civil space programs posed by growing concerns about energy and desires for crash programs to develop alternative energy sources. Both major presidential candidates have appropriated arguably the biggest accomplishment of the Space Age to date—the Apollo lunar landings—as a way to describe the level of commitment (and size of funding) needed to gain “strategic independence” in energy (in John McCain’s words) or otherwise develop alternative energies.

That level of effort will require a lot of money: Barack Obama’s energy policy calls for $150 billion over 10 years for alternative energy research. Coupled with desires to reduce deficit spending, as well as growing pressure on the budget from mandatory spending, will space feel the squeeze in the next administration? As I conclude the article:

…but new energy policies will add to the existing fiscal pressures on NASA and space exploration in the next administration and beyond. That makes it all the more imperative for NASA and its supporters to craft approaches that are cost effective and also exciting and inspiring, to help win public support and thus funding. Otherwise, the Vision for Space Exploration and efforts like it might run out of gas.

In a related article, Greg Anderson examines what it takes to build long-term support for government initiatives of any kind, from Social Security to the Cold War, and how that can be used to build support in future administrations for space exploration. His conclusion: “Space expansion, therefore, must be presented to voters as being good for society as a whole. If the enemy in the Cold War was Communism, the alternatives to expanding the human economy beyond Earth are poverty, stagnation, and smaller, perhaps shorter lives for coming generations.”

7 comments to Energy vs. space

  • Bob Mahoney

    As much as I hope for and believe in the eventual viability of a future enhanced by solar system exploration and exploitation, I wonder if Anderson’s suggested “sales pitch” (a crude characterization, I admit) has much chance of gaining traction without some immediate easily understood demonstration of space-derived solutions to “poverty, stagnation, and […] shorter lives”—something mighty difficult to do (the almost unknown history of ATS-6 comes to mind).

    The Communist threat that sustained our policies throughout the multi-decade Cold War was very real, even to the folks on the street. It began right after we had fought an immensely costly war to prevent one set of autocratic regimes from dominating the globe, and everyone could see on the news or in their school textbooks the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Schoolkids were actually crawling under desks for a few years! You don’t get much more ‘real’ than that.

    Space exploration, on the other hand, isn’t really a part of everyone’s daily consciousness. For most people it is an occasional 30-second “gee whiz” entertainment sprinkled in amongst all the other distractions in their lives, brought to them when (and if) the news media sees fit. (Let’s face it: “Space Week” is primarily viewed by those already enamored of spaceflight.) All the benefits gained directly or indirectly over the years (weather, communications) are just technology givens to them which they never associate with the original exploratory space programs that brought them into being.

    Before there is any chance of creating a long-term commitment in the public (and then the govt) to space exploration, we need to move it (space exploration) further up in their consciousness, to the point that they are actually aware of what is going on, that what is going on has enough inherent ‘entertainment’ value to sustain THEIR interest longer than 30 seconds at a time (well-told stories always do), and that further exploration promises even better fun for them in the future.

  • S.R.


    Your points are good, but it is also worth considering that governments have historically undertaken large programs that were not of any particular interest to the general public. In the early 17th Century, how much did a villager in Yorkshire know or care about the settlement of Jamestown?

  • Bob Mahoney


    You make a valid point that merits a look at possible historical precedents.

    You must acknowledge, however, that our current information-saturated society and the quasi-democratic governments existing therein (for better or worse) operate under a different paradigm than that in which James I and his parliament found themselves (or Hitler, Stalin, et al—they executed a number of large programs that their people on the street were unaware of, too).

  • Dennis Wingo

    The reason that space exploration has not had this daily impact on the conciousness of Americans is because for the last 40 years it has not focused on the point of the article referenced here or what I have written about for years, which is the economic development of the solar system.

    Another particular problem with NASA has been this obsession with Mars. A human mission to Mars at this time cannot be more than flags & footprints considering the cost of really developing Mars as a second outpost of humanity.

    This is why the Moon is critically important, and creating an industrial infrastructure on the Moon and beyond is the only true rational for the effort. until this becomes core values of space advocates, space exploration will continue in circles.

    Good to see more people writing on this.

  • Doug Lassiter

    Now Al Gore has issued a challenge to the nation about a ten-year effort toward energy independence, and has used the words “Moon shot goal” to describe it. While one might not take the former VP that seriously, I find this challenge a national imperative that is probably more exciting and enervating than going back to the Moon. I’m a bit surprised to find myself saying that, but it’s justifiable, at least in the near term.

    The Moon may well be critically important, but it certainly isn’t clear right now why that might be so, at least to potential beneficiaries without an economical strategy for space transportation. To Mike Griffin’s credit, I think he understands that a new space transportation architecture is more important than a return to the Moon.

    From the perspective of developmental technology, there is an existing template for going to the Moon. There isn’t really one for energy independence.

  • […] I noted here earlier this week, there is growing interest in alternative energy efforts that could end up competing with space exploration for federal funding—even as alternative […]

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