The View From Here

The View From Here

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

At sea near the Hawaiian Islands and tending the aft sails of the historic Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule'a, I cannot help but be struck with a deep sense of how long people have looked up at the stars, charted their course by them, and set sail on voyages of exploration.

By the time this edition of Space Watch goes into distribution, the United States will be voting to elect a new president and Congress.  It will be up to these leaders to chart our nation's future course.  I hope that whatever our new government looks like, it has the wisdom of my ancient Polynesian ancestors - the wisdom to look toward the stars, chart a course of exploration, and sail boldly forward to explore.

The new administration and Congress will have many advantages in charting a bold course for the United States in space, but will they have the wisdom of my ancestors?  The Polynesians had relatively simple tools and knowledge to work with - a detailed understanding of the positions of the stars and the workings of the sun, moon, and planets; generations of observed behavior of the trade winds and trade wind seas, currents, and wave patterns; and knowledge of how ocean animals behaved in proximity to island land masses.  Based on these "primitive" tools, they explored and settled an area comprising some 10 million square miles of sea and routinely navigated between tiny islands thousands of miles apart - centuries before European explorers found their way across the Atlantic or into the Pacific.

Today, of course, we know more about our universe than my ancestors could have imagined. We certainly have the tools and technologies to travel millions of miles into space.  But do we have the vision, courage, and commitment to embark on such epic journeys?  Do our elected and appointed officials understand the vast benefits that have come from exploration - including U.S. leadership in the world - and are they committed to continuing to reap those benefits?  Such a commitment requires strategy and investment.  Who will articulate the strategy?  How will we make the investments?

I would be preaching to the choir if I started listing all the benefits that space exploration and development have brought to planet Earth and to the human race.  Suffice to say, space has become the crucial infrastructure of our time, and space technologies and systems will continue to outpace growth in other areas as space becomes crucial to monitoring global climate change, providing clean energy solutions, and extending human presence beyond the home planet.

The first half-century of space exploration is behind us, and "The Next Space Age" has begun.  What remains to be seen is what role the United States will play in the next 50 years.  Will we continue to lead, or will we merrily sit on our hands and watch our lead continue to erode as other space nations come to the fore?  If we choose the latter, are we prepared for the consequences?  These are all relevant questions for us to be asking our new leaders as they take office.

With a mission "to advance space endeavors to inspire, enable, and propel humanity," you can rest assured that the Space Foundation will be a strong and vocal advocate for vigorous, robust space programs of every flavor - civil, commercial, entrepreneurial, national security space, personal spaceflight, and human and robotic exploration.  We want it all!  But what troubles me as we pursue this mission is the depth of apathy and, frankly, arrogance that we sometimes encounter along the way.

Much of the public assumes that the United States continues unrivaled as the leader in all things space.
We do not.

Much of the public assumes we spend vast amounts of our national treasure on space.
We do not.

Much of the public assumes we have no rivals in space.
We do.

These flawed assumptions find expression in space exploration and national security space budgets that are insufficient to "The Next Space Age," and in over-regulation of an industry that is vital to our future.  We must change these attitudes.  The time for change is now.

Plowing dauntlessly into the deep Pacific swells aboard the sturdy Hokule'a, I am reminded of another age of exploration.   It was a time when European fleets ruled the seas - or so they thought until they sailed into the Pacific and were stunned to discover "primitive" peoples navigating hundred-foot-long double-hulled canoes with pinpoint accuracy between tiny islands thousands of miles apart.  Without compass or sextant, the Polynesians had, for centuries, fearlessly navigated waters that the Europeans were only now beginning to discover.

With supreme arrogance, European scholars dismissed these feats as simple luck.  It was not until Hokule'a began repeating these epic voyages in 1976, without the aid of charts or compass or sextant (much less GPS) that western intelligentsia confronted the truth.  My ancestors had been navigating these vast uncharted seas for centuries whilst Europeans had yet to cross the Atlantic and run inexorably into thousands of miles of unbroken North American coastline.  Exploration, it seems, is less about technology than it is about having the vision, courage, and will to succeed.  At some level, it is still about having the wind in your face and your eyes fixed on the horizon.

Other nations are finding their courage and their will to succeed.  China's success in space is increasingly breath taking, Japan has mounted one of the most impressive interplanetary exploration programs ever, and India recently launched its first mission to the moon.  I wonder whether our new leaders will also arrogantly dismiss these feats as simple luck or recognize that other nations are mustering the courage and sense of national purpose that once seemed the sole provenance of our own space programs.

One thing is certain.  Whether sailing aboard an indefatigable and dauntless ship of destiny like Hokule'a, or a state-of-the-art yacht jammed with the latest satellite technology - if you don't chart a true course and properly provision your ship, your voyage is likely to end in failure.  So it is with the nation's space programs.

The View from Here is that the new administration and Congress must set sail boldly.  "The Next Space Age" will be even more important to America's future than the first space age.  We must choose to lead, not follow.  We must chart a bold course, provision our ships well, and set sail with absolute resolve.

This article is part of Space Watch: November 2008 (Volume: 7, Issue: 11).