Press Release

A New Golden Age of Space Exploration

By SpaceRef Editor
November 9, 2005
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A New Golden Age of Space Exploration

An Address by Dr. Ron Sugar, Chairman, CEO and President, Northrop Grumman Corporation, delivered at the National Press Club, November 9, 2005

Thank you all for coming today.

Let me start with a question. How many of you in this room have a personal memory of the Cold War?

For those of you who still remember it, you may recall that one of its effects was that it compelled our nation to begin the exploration of space, and in the process of that exploration, to astonish ourselves and the world with what we could do, and what we could gain in the doing.

It has been 33 years since the last American left the moon. Our first generation of lunar explorers got there with courage, preparation and good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity. But with Yankee ingenuity also came Yankee practicality, so once the strategic imperative was met, the program’s justification ended. Going to the moon was never a scientific priority, nor at that time was a permanent lunar presence technologically practical at that time, or economically justified. But now, nearly four decades later, I believe the situation has changed.

For the next few minutes, I’d like to talk to you about why our nation and the world must renew the human exploration of space. I will also share with you my deep concerns about many serious problems right here on earth. However, I will take the contrarian view that, despite these problems – indeed because of them – we need to explore, and we must devote an appropriate share of our nation’s human capital and financial resources to that exploration.

As the CEO of a high technology corporation, I freely concede a corporate interest in this topic. But there is a point where this corporate interest intersects with the interests of every American and every human being, and so I’ll restrict my remarks to that intersection. I will make no promises today on behalf of space exploration, because exploration, by its very nature, makes none.

As a corporate executive and businessman, I am trained to make a rigorous business case for any large investment. But again, contrary to my training, I will not do that here because the future promise of space exploration is inherently unknowable today. What we do know for certain is that investments in exploration have historically returned enormous benefits to those nations that made them. So let’s start with a little history.

The Portuguese, the Dutch, Spain, France, Britain and others once made large investments in the study of astronomy, navigation, shipbuilding and seamanship. They mounted explorations to every corner of the world and the wealth that resulted from their commerce, diplomacy – and sometimes plunder – helped finance the late renaissance and the enlightenment. It helped finance the art and architecture of a blossoming Europe, and the philosophical movements that eventually led even to the birth of our own country. Those nations that explored first were the first to prosper. Those that lagged behind did so at great cost to themselves economically, culturally, and in terms of their national security.

The story of one country says much. For most of its recent history, and until very recently, China has been closed and insular – either consuming itself through government tyranny, or being consumed by outside powers. But there was a time when China dominated East Asia, the Western Pacific and even the Indian Ocean.

Nearly a hundred years before Columbus, China made huge investments in the study of astronomy, navigation and ship building. Its greatest explorer – an admiral named Zheng He – made seven voyages, leading armadas of hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of sailors. His ships were designed with watertight compartments and up to nine masts. And they were by all standards enormous – 400 to 500 feet long. By comparison, the largest of Columbus’s three ships was less than ninety feet. Admiral Zheng’s journeys established relations with new lands, and traded silk and porcelain for spices, medicinal herbs, hardwoods and African ivory. They secured Arabian horses for the Imperial cavalry. This was a golden age for China. It was a diverse, wealthy, relatively tolerant, and advanced country.

When Admiral Zheng’s last expedition returned to China, they discovered that the royal court had undergone a profound philosophical shift. It now looked inward to deal with famine, plague and military threats. Zheng He’s voyages were criticized as expensive and gratuitous adventures. His trip logs were destroyed, his ships allowed to rot, and the study of navigation and shipbuilding was abandoned. China’s last golden age would soon be over.

America later had its own rich tradition of exploration. Shortly following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Lewis and Clark captured the imagination of Americans and bound them to their new continent. The U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838 discovered the Antarctic Continent and explored the Pacific Ocean. The forty tons of specimens it returned would later become the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution’s scientific collections.

In 1909 Robert Peary reached the North Pole. In 1928 Admiral Richard Byrd was the first man to fly over the South Pole. And just thirty years later, the USS Nautilus proved the value of nuclear propulsion by exploring the seas under the polar ice cap.

As the Nautilus was making its voyage in the deep, the first age of space exploration was beginning. And that age of exploration would spin off scores of industries and technologies. It would bring us accurate weather forecasting; precision global navigation; improved communications; a greatly enhanced understanding of our planet and our universe; and a talented aerospace workforce that helped place us at the world’s technological forefront. And let’s not forget the imaging satellite. The forewarning it gives us has made us safer, and its ability to verify treaty compliance has helped control the spread of dangerous weapons and ballistic missile technologies.

History is clear. Far from being a drag on a nation’s progress, exploration often accelerates a nation’s progress.

Every age has its governing commodity, and the fortunes of nations wax and wane in correlation to their mastery of it. In past millennia it was the mastery of tools and weapons – first of stone then bronze, and finally iron. Centuries ago the governing commodity was precious metals. More recently it has been trade and finance, steel and oil.

But the ultimate governing commodity of our age is intellectual capital. Just think about that. As a nation, we are preeminent in the world because we dominate that commodity. It is the basis of our leadership in pharmaceuticals and medicine; communications and computer technology; aerospace, genetic engineering, national security, and many other categories.

If we ever lose our dominance in intellectual capital, we will lose our position of leadership in the world. And the world – not just America – will be far the worse for it.

One of the most important subsets of that commodity is the intellectual capital of our aerospace industry. The loss of pre-eminence in our aerospace industry would certainly cripple our future and would foreclose on national capabilities and impact economic sectors unrelated to space or aviation.

Unfortunately, in the past thirteen years our nation has lost more than 600,000 scientific and technical aerospace jobs. We also find ourselves bracing for a tidal wave of retirements of our most experienced technical minds. NASA has four times as many technicians over the age of sixty as they have under the age of thirty. Yet last year U.S. universities graduated only 70,000 engineers. Meanwhile, according to the National Academies, India graduated approximately 200,000 and China graduated more than 500,000. By the way: The quality of these engineers is every bit as good as our own. This alarming trend is underscored by other facts. In 2001, for example, U.S. industry spent more on tort litigation than on research and development.

We have shortfalls in technical talent due to both supply and demand issues. The solution on the supply side must include our schools. Study after study reveals the math and science weaknesses of our education system. Not only are our students avoiding these fields in high school and college, but those who want to study them have trouble finding teachers. U.S. school districts will need to hire 240,000 middle school and high school math and science teachers between now and 2010. Where will they come from? In most of the world’s other space-faring nations, math and science are the subjects of choice, not just for the students, but for the governments that hire the teachers.

Beyond our borders lie other strategic challenges which, in an earlier age, we might have viewed as strictly moral imperatives. Today, they take on a greater strategic importance.

For example, it is the policy of our nation that the AIDS epidemic be addressed as a national security issue, and for good reason. It has decimated entire regions in Africa, and when societies implode, instability follows. Other strategic challenges include world population growth; hunger; ethnic strife; environmental damage; shortages of energy and fresh water; and most recently, the Avian Flu. All of these problems are made even more intractable by the grinding poverty that characterizes so much of our world.

Though all of these things will call for resources, we must face the fact that no nation’s policy is powerful enough – no nation’s treasury is big enough – to solve directly all the strategic challenges of our age. A 19th Century social commentator named Theodore Parker once made an observation that stands the test of time. He noted that as society advances, the threshold for what constitutes poverty rises. Successful exploration can raise the condition of all of humanity.

So, why should space be the object of our explorations? There are still places left to explore on our earth – the ocean bottoms for example – but they are few. There is simply more to explore beyond our planet than on it.

In space, we have already gained tremendous knowledge through robotic exploration, and that must continue. But it is also true that over the past three decades we have built up a reservoir of technological advances that would make human space exploration far easier today than it was during the Apollo years. The computing power aboard those venerable Apollo space capsules was roughly that of a modern pocket calculator. Advances in computing power, composite materials, computer-aided design, and nano-technology will make the next space ships safer and more capable – and even more reusable. The state of our existing technology argues loudly for a return to human space exploration.

Returning to the moon is the logical first step. Not only is it the closest world for humans to fully explore, but having been there before, we can build on a large body of existing knowledge.

This time, however, we must go to stay. In partnership with other nations, we must use the moon as an explorer’s training ground and a science factory. We must learn to live and work in its hostile environment. We must look for private sector opportunities that will harness the power of free enterprise to the goal of exploration. We must attempt to generate rocket fuel and solar arrays from lunar materials. We must see if our current technologies can be used to beam clean, limitless solar electricity back to earth. We must use the moon to perform planetary science. All of these things hold great promise in theory. But we will never know which of these theories can solve problems on earth until we take the risks and place people on the moon’s surface to do the work.

Returning to the moon holds other opportunities as well. It will allow us to retain leadership of the most precious commodity of our age – intellectual capital. And it will help revitalize the state of our aerospace technology. For these reasons we must carve out and preserve a small but sustainable portion of our nation’s future resources for exploration.

Yes, we must hire more math and science teachers. That is the supply side of the equation. But, we must also remember that while government might make a child study science and math, it cannot make a child want to study science and math. Government can, however, inspire. That is the demand side.

The great national quests from our history have never failed to generate armies of eager youths. This is because every young heart holds a desperate wish to matter – to make a difference. We must return to the moon to engage that wish. Inspire our youth and give them a new mission and they will amaze us.

Human space exploration is an idea whose time has – once again – come. We face too many challenges on earth to abstain from it any longer. Our first age of space exploration returned benefits to the world that defy calculation. There is no reason why a new age of exploration will not do the same.

The President has expressed a determined vision to return us to the task. The technology currently exists to do it. And in September NASA Administrator Mike Griffin announced its plan to channel all of these forces into a program to achieve it. A program that is balanced, safe, affordable, and prudent. This plan stands the best possible chance of returning humans to the moon in the shortest time with the highest chance of success, and laying the groundwork for more ambitious human exploration to follow.

Last month it was my honor to introduce a new documentary film about the Apollo 8 mission at its preview screening at the National Air and Space Museum. That evening, as we all watched the film, I was struck by the reaction of the three astronauts – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders – as they peered through their capsule window and first saw the earth rising above the surface of the moon. They had come all that way to study the moon, but instead found themselves mesmerized by their view of the earth from which they just came. As Americans prioritize the needs of our times, we must remember that the ultimate goal of space exploration is the welfare of all those who live on planet earth.

I’ll close by noting that today is the birthday of the late astronomer, Carl Sagan. I would like to leave you with one of his quotes. He said, “Those creatures who find their everyday experience a muddled jumble of events with no predictability, and no regularity, are in grave peril. The universe belongs to those who, at least to some degree, have figured it out.”

Thank you.

SpaceRef staff editor.