Thinking out loud about the future of US space programs
Disclaimer: the below is purely speculation, not based on any sources or any kind of real research at all. In fact, it’s mostly just thinking out loud about the US & our future in space. In other words, excuse the low quality.
One of the most depressing cover images I’ve ever seen on the Economist was the recent “End of the Space Age.” Humanity’s foray into outer space goes beyond nationality, politics, language—really, beyond any of the lines we could conceivably divide ourselves with. As governments, especially the United States, face the immense pressure to reduce spending and choose between vital priorities, space exploration is one of those areas that is so vulnerable despite its long-term benefits for us as a species.
Low Earth Orbit is not the exciting frontier it once was, and the cost of something like putting men on Mars would undoubtedly be extremely expensive. So if I were a US administration, what would I prioritize my space dollars?
Probably the military. Specifically, finding practical applications to utilize space for military advantage.
Such a move would be considered controversial abroad, especially in Russia, China and India, and might even meet opposition domestically. Frankly, the militarization of space is inevitable. The only questions are who will do it first, and who will do it best? The US need not be the first to unveil space-borne military capabilities, but we certainly should be ready to overtake the front-runner the moment he appears.
The Boeing X-37, a NASA project that was transferred to the Defense Department, may very well be a sign of things to come. As NASA provides the initial burst of innovation & discovery, the DoD will take up the practical application of space technologies. As we move into the future, military uses of space will evolve beyond spy satellites & communications. The possibilities are exciting and nearly endless (and sure to be fraught with danger), but at this point you’d probably be dismissed as a sci-fi nerd for even imagining them. Space-based missile platforms, orbital troop-delivery vehicles, and a high-atmosphere navy are just some of the potential outcomes.
As unrealistic as these scenarios may seem now, planning for them (and thus, for the future) is essential. Space-based military tools will be the biggest revolution in warfare since the airplane, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to develop strategies and doctrines in anticipation of it.
While I lament the decline of NASA and the end of the shuttle program, I’m sure it won’t be the end of humanity’s story in space. Private sector companies are picking up some of the slack. If the DoD is actively involved in research and developing space platforms, we probably wouldn’t hear about it for a while. My gut feeling is that while NASA’s budget may have declined, some resources must have been shifted to the military side of things.