Why Not Let Other Countries Lead in Space?

More nations are heading into space—a dozen of them as I am writing this, and growing. An orbital satellite has become a must-have item, along with an airline, for any self-respecting nation. Meanwhile, China, India, and, possibly, Iran are upping the ante in space.

The Gravity Well briefly explores the implications of letting competitors like China and Russia take the lead in space. Every military general will tell you that the essential battle tactic is to gain the higher ground. Space is the ultimate high ground. It’s also where we have taken our communications and the devices we use to locate ourselves. It would be foolish to give up this territory to powers that someday may want to do America harm or who could beat us to colonies on the Moon or Mars, with political systems that lack our commitment to freedom.

But there’s a still more noble reason for space—a peaceful reason. Despite the growing efforts by the other powers, none of them has the means or the technical ability to meet our mutual ambitions in space. The future (perhaps the very near future) of humankind depends on our ability to explore and colonize other celestial bodies and to understand the forces in play between them. This must not be the sole endeavor of a single nation; nor can it be left to a race between rivals. To achieve our greatest goals in space requires a human-wide effort. That means cooperation between nations, even rivalrous ones.

And here’s the good news: We’ve already been cooperating for more than three decades. Fifteen nations currently support the International Space Station. Even while tensions were rising over Russia’s domination of eastern Ukraine, Russians and Americans were conducting science experiments, living and eating, performing maintenance work, conducting mutual ground-based operations, and communicating aboard the Space Station. Our cooperation in space provides a counter-narrative to the story presented by the news media and government spin doctors. While hostility grows between the two nations, scientists and engineers are gaining new knowledge in the most hostile of environments, learning the effect of space on humans, how to build reliable systems that work in a gravity-less vacuum with dramatically changing temperatures. Neither nation is “winning.” Neither is losing. Humanity is gaining.

This is more than a story of international cooperation. It’s also a story of American leadership in space. The new chapter of space exploration will not be about Americans going alone to other planets. But it can be a story about America leading the way. If NASA is given the means and the direction, we can guide the multinational effort into space. We can prove that American leadership means more than winning on the battlefield, more than defending ourselves against threats to our security. To regain the deepest respect of the rest of the world, we have to lead the rest of the world, not just protect against it.

In short, the world once respected America for acting more out of courage than fear. The challenge of the Gravity Well will let us choose courage once again.

No, we’re not done. We have barely begun to break out of our Well.