USAF Colonel Offers National Space Strategy

by Lt. Col. Timothy K. Roberts, USAF

As the United States enters the 21st Century, it finds itself with an unparalleled space-faring capability and, paradoxically, no formal overall strategy to use it. The result is a confusing welter of projects, civil, commercial, and military, that achieve only a fraction of their goals and bewilder the taxpaying public, ultimately losing their interest and support. This is a sad state for the premier space-faring nation on the planet.

It is one we can fix.

A useful strategy requires three things: an ultimate goal, a plan to achieve it, and the tools needed for that job. This White Paper proposes all three in a summary fashion. It makes no recommendations for specific programs or technologies but rather focuses on the broader issues that will guide those decisions. Without a formal goal, a plan, and the tools, the United States will inevitably pass the torch to a more focused competitor who will reap the vast rewards of opening the Solar System to mankind.

The ultimate goal the United States has adopted informally over the past 50 years is nothing less than opening the Solar System to human settlement and exploitation in a free, capitalist and democratic manner. This goal provides our children and their children lives beyond the atmosphere, futures where they can grow and flourish in ways we can but dimly see. It is imperative that our goal encompass people’s lives and not merely knowledge or wealth, although both of those and more will surely follow.

People will spend any treasure, make any sacrifice for a new and better future for themselves and their children. If we do not continue to pursue this goal, then all our efforts in space will ultimately be for naught. If we do pursue this goal, we will achieve it, for we are a pioneering people and this is the grandest pioneering effort in human history.

It is ours to win — or ours to lose. We dare not lose it.

The plan that will achieve this goal is necessarily complex in its details but simple in outline. We must do several things to win this greatest of frontiers: we must find ways to make a life in space, we must invent and adapt the tools we will need, and we must delineate the roles of all the participants in space exploration and exploitation. Finding a way to make a life in space really means finding ways to earn a living.

We must learn whether we can exploit the Moon, the asteroids, Mars, the very Sun itself to create products, energy, and knowledge that are valuable and can be bought and sold. Once that is done, people will go where the wealth is. We must bend our efforts to learning whether there is Helium3 on the Moon or whether we can extract iron or palladium from asteroids. We must find ways to derive usable energy from the Sun and provide it to customers on Earth and elsewhere. We must learn how to make crystals and pharmaceuticals in micro-gravity.

And we must learn how to serve each other off-planet — how to be doctors, clerks, teachers, laborers, hoteliers. For space isn’t for PhDs only — it is for all of us, engineer and foundryman, nurse and astrophysicist. Unless we can do these things, we won’t truly live in space. And neither will our children.

We have already invested significant treasure, public and private, inventing and adapting the tools and technology we will need. We must continue to do so. No frontier comes without cost, especially the financial kind. We must have the will to spend the money it takes to gain the ultimate return. A key question will be who does what. To date, government investment has paid for virtually all space exploration and development.

Public monies have made it possible for companies to orbit communications satellites by paying for booster development and satellite technologies. As we grow more sophisticated, we must learn to share these responsibilities, because massive government involvement in the opening of space will greatly slow the pace.

There are, after all, things that private industry and individuals do better than governments — and there are things that governments do best. We must decide what these are and

how we divide the cost, risk, and rewards equitably. This will not be a trivial undertaking but it must be done, and soon, to ensure that Americans are the ones to open space.

The next element is developing the tools to realize the plan. Right now, we can’t truly say what technologies, or even sciences, are most crucial for opening space. If we are wise, we will realize that the answer will be dynamic; it will always change depending on the circumstances, our abilities, and our willingness to invest. We can, however, already state some of the problems we must solve, if only because we’re already working on them.

For instance, we need cheap, reliable transportation to and through space. We need reliable and enduring life-support systems. We need new manufacturing technologies. We need computer and robot partners to aid us. Certainly, this isn’t a comprehensive list but it does show the way ahead we need to travel.

And the list is further complicated by the question of who does what — again. Clearly, the vast leverage of public funds will be needed to answer some of these needs while sharply focused, nimble industry and private resources will be needed for others. The mix and amount of funds will be just as dynamic as that of the technologies themselves. But, again, this is a task at which Americans excel. We’re able to mix public and private efforts in the optimum way to achieve the best results.

The task ahead is certainly daunting. And it is most certainly expensive in the most precious of coin, human life. We’ve already made some sacrifices. We will — we must — make more to achieve our goal. But we must achieve that goal of opening the Solar System to human settlement and exploitation.

Anything less demeans our heritage and history as Americans. We went to the Moon in 10 years. We can go out into the Solar System in 30 years and own it in 50. The choice is ours — now. We have said it all along and we now say it to ourselves, each other, and the rest of the world:

"We’re going out! Lead, follow, or get out of the way!"

4 October 1997 (40th Anniversary of Sputnik Launch)

Lt. Col. Roberts has long been involved in space development on the military side. He wrote this white paper as a response to his personal concern that neither the country nor NSS has a workable strategy for space development. Please address comments to him or the Utah Space Association. Reprinted with permission in the Aurora, Utah Space Association newsletter.