NASA’s Unique Place in American Science and Security

By Greg Mercer

We talk a lot here about the intersection of science, technology, and security studies, and NASA has sat squarely in the center of that relationship since it was called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The Hill reports that GOP legislation is threatening NASA’s plan to develop its own launch vehicles to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. Currently, the US relies on Russia for this capability. Defunding domestic launch capabilities would result in continued reliance on Russian launch capacity, which has cost $1.2 billion since late 2011. The House and Senate spending measures undercut the $1.24 billion needed for the Commercial Crew Program—which would pay for Boeing and SpaceX to develop manned spacecraft by 2017—by up to $300 million.

Relying on Russia for launch capacity creates an interesting contradiction. First, NASA is not a military organization, and its activities are largely in the spirit of international cooperation, especially when it comes to Russia. However, defense hawks tend to oppose Russia’s ongoing incursions into Ukraine, sometimes loudly. This generally means supporting increased sanctions and avoiding cooperation, so it wouldn’t seem to follow that while scolding Russia for their military actions towards their neighbor, the US should also continue to rely on them for launch capacity. This isn’t the first time this sort of relationship has been framed this way. Foreign oil dependence has been a buzzword for decades, and it’s an issue that combines two different issues- energy and defense- into one. The argument goes that relying on potentially unstable partners for oil is a threat to national security, since the collapse of an oil-exporting partner could require military action to protect American energy interests. Regardless of this argument’s veracity, it has persuaded lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to pursue energy production means other than oil imports. A similar argument follows for Russia: if the US wants to economically punish Russia’s aggression and remain the forefront player in the space industry, why would it pay Russia to transport its astronauts?

I support NASA’s budget pretty vehemently, but for somewhat more optimistic reasons. I’m a strong proponent of space exploration of a national goal and a human endeavor, but I’m not adverse to a simple economic argument. Take a look at the list of NASA spin-off technologies. NASA has developed a huge range of technologies that undeniably benefit technology investors, the US, and the world at large.

For the first time since the shuttle program, NASA’s Orion program is providing the agency with long-term goals for manned spaceflight. And if you want to talk about a real security threat, no organization is better suited to detect and potentially avert objects that pose a threat to Earth. NASA pays science and security dividends in spades. Hopefully the hawks and the doves can come together to support it.

Image Credit: MrMiscellanious

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