Status Report

Leadership in Space – Speech by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin

By SpaceRef Editor
December 6, 2005
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Leadership in Space – Speech by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin

California Space Authority

2 December 2005

I’m here today to talk about national and world leadership in space – what it means to me, and what I think it takes to achieve and maintain it.

I’m certain that most of us here will agree that it is important for the United States to be a leader among the nations of the world, and that such leadership has many dimensions. Economic, cultural, diplomatic, moral and educational leadership are certainly major components of world leadership, and clearly we still live in a time when any wealthy and prominent nation must have the ability to defend itself and its allies. But true leadership also involves defining, and then pursuing, the frontiers that expand mankind’s reach. It means occupying the cutting edge of science and technology. It means establishing world technical standards – as we have done in the computing and aviation industries – not through coercion but because we have developed a capability that others wish to use. It also means having the ability and determination to take the lead in building coalitions and partnerships to do those things that fulfill the dreams of mankind. And those dreams have always included the desire to see what lies beyond the known world.

To journey beyond the known world today, we must leave Earth entirely. That is the long-held dream that has actively engaged our country and others for nearly 50 years, since our first primitive steps in the exploration of space became possible. And I firmly believe that in the 21st Century world that is taking shape as we speak, a vital part of world leadership will be leadership in the exploration and development of the space frontier.

For many years, our country has been rightly recognized as the world leader in the exploration and use of space, and in developing and deploying the technologies that make space leadership possible. Our determination to be first on the Moon and preeminent in other space activities resulted in some of the iconic moments of the 20th Century, and helped to solidify American leadership in the generation after World War II.

But, as they say, that was then and this is now. We cannot rest on nor be satisfied with past accomplishments. The true space age, in which humans will explore the worlds beyond our own, is just getting underway. Leadership in establishing a human presence in the Solar System will, in my judgment, be a key factor in defining world leadership back home on Earth for generations to come.

Throughout history, the great civilizations have always extended the frontiers of their times. Indeed, this is almost a tautology; we define as “great” only those civilizations which did explore and expand their frontiers, thereby ultimately influencing world culture. And when, inevitably, some societies retreated from the frontiers they had pioneered, their greatness subsided as well.

Today, other nations besides our own aspire to leadership on the space frontier. These nations are making progress, and they will undoubtedly utilize their advancements in space to influence world affairs. Their activities will earn them the respect, which is both sincere and automatic, that is accorded to nations and societies engaged in pioneering activities. These things are not in doubt, and so the question before us is this: when other nations reach the Moon, or Mars, or the worlds beyond, will they be standing with the United States, or will we be watching their exploits on television? The President has given us his answer. America will lead. Nearly two years ago, the President said, “We have undertaken space travel because the desire to explore and understand is part of our character. And that quest has brought tangible benefits that improve our lives in countless ways.” He also said our Vision for Space exploration is a “journey, not a race.” These words are unambiguous. They chart a course for action that is unmistakable. It is imperative that this commitment transcend any given Administration and any given Congress.

Today, as other countries renew their commitment to space, America has the opportunity, and I would argue the obligation, to maintain our leadership role in space exploration. As we watch other countries commit to developing new exploration systems and technologies to expand into space, we too must remain committed to new advancements, lest we fall behind. In that regard, it may be significant to note that, of today’s major spacefaring powers only Russia and China have spacecraft – Soyuz and Shenzhou – that are capable of returning crews from a trip to the Moon.

Through the Vision for Space Exploration however, this country has a renewed commitment to maintain our leadership and restore the capabilities we set aside many years ago. The vote by two successive Congresses to support the Vision for Space Exploration outlined by President Bush two years ago offers wonderful evidence of national determination to regain lost ground in space. But beyond those very important congressional votes, there are some very serious challenges that we must face as a nation. We must think carefully about what the world of tomorrow will look like if the United States is not the preeminent spacefaring nation. And if we don’t like that picture, if we truly want the United States to be the world leader in space now and in the future, there are a number of critical things we simply must decide to do. The Vision gives us the opportunity to take on the leading role in the exploration of space, not just for this century, but for centuries to come. But we have to seize that opportunity, and make it a reality.

The first essential step is that American leadership in the exploration and development of the space frontier must be an explicit national goal. There must be continued and sustained bipartisan cooperation and agreement on the importance and necessity of American leadership in space, just as we are determined to be leaders in other areas such as defense, education, and scientific research. There need not, indeed there must not, be partisan debates over whether to have a vibrant space program or not. And we must get beyond revisiting this determination each year, or after an accident, or after a technical problem.

In addition to needing national agreement on the importance of American leadership in space, we need to make this a commitment from generation to generation. Space exploration by its very nature requires the planning and implementation of missions and projects over decades, not years. Decades of commitment were required to build up our network of transcontinental railroads and highways, as well as our systems for maritime and aeronautical commerce. It will be no quicker or easier to build our highways to space, and the commitment to do it must be clear and sustaining.

To ensure the success of the space program across a wide spectrum of political thought and down the generations, it is essential to have simple but compelling goals. The space community has an obligation to communicate to the country our plans to ensure America’s leadership in space exploration. The President’s Exploration Vision has established goals that people can understand and support – moving our space exploration activities beyond low Earth orbit, and returning to the Moon as a stepping-stone to Mars and other destinations beyond, such as the near-Earth asteroids.

Broad support for these goals is certainly there. A recent Gallup poll indicated that, with funding levels at or below 1% of the Federal budget, three-quarters of Americans are supportive of our plans to return to the Moon and voyage to Mars. This is amazingly strong support for any government initiative, and I believe it provides a firm foundation upon which to build in the years ahead. The first step might be to explain that, actually, we’re spending only 0.7% of the Federal budget!

Still another key requirement for long-term leadership in space is the ability to build and maintain a strong international coalition of spacefaring nations. A critical component of this ability will always be our credibility in making agreements, and honoring them. In any partnership, the most critical commitments fall upon the senior partner. Since that, of course, is the role we wish to play, we must be thoughtful, deliberate and sure about any commitments we make. But once made, we need to keep them. I think we can all agree that one of the best results of the International Space Station program is the cooperation it has fostered among the participating nations. A prime goal of the President’s Vision for Space Exploration is to continue and expand this cooperation as we plan for human lunar return.

These are some of the key things we need to do if we Americans are indeed serious about being a leader on the space frontier. As we lift our eyes to the future, I see a space program that will bring hope, opportunity, and tangible benefits as we renew our commitment to lead in these endeavors. While we cannot predict today at what pace others will venture beyond Earth orbit and establish the first outposts on distant worlds, I earnestly believe those nations that are the most adept at reading the lessons of history will be taking the lead.

I have mused often upon these lessons, looking for the patterns that can provide guidance for our own time. Indeed, if we were alive 500 years ago, or thereabouts, and a candlelight conference were held in Lisbon by the Portuguese Oceans Authority, no doubt we would be listening to such giants of exploration as Vasco da Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral, the explorer who claimed Brazil for Portugal, explain how their activities would bring about Portugal’s rise to global influence.

Perhaps all of us would be speaking Portuguese today had not first Spain, and then later England, made a greater commitment to the discovery, exploration, and settlement of new territories.

As an example of how the choices that nations make matter, not only for themselves, but also for the future of humanity, let us consider the case of John Cabot. Cabot, whose true name was Giovanni Caboto, was an Italian who sailed for the English government and with private merchants, after Spain and Portugal expressed no interest in his ideas on finding a westward passage to Asia. While exploring the coastal regions of North American in Newfoundland, he established the basis for England’s claim to North America, and was the first to bring our language to the shores we now live.

There are more recent examples of similar pivotal crossroads in our history. While American ingenuity, in the form of those quintessentially American inventors, Wilbur and Orville Wright, did lead the way into the era of powered flight, we tend to forget that we squandered our initial leadership in aviation. And so, ninety years ago, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s major predecessor, was founded precisely because our nation’s leaders feared the European nations already had a significant advantage in the development of strategically important aviation systems and technologies, just one decade into the age of flight. This was in fact true, and as a consequence, the air war of World War I was fought with European airplanes.

But because we made a strong commitment at that time to this emerging field, the influence of American air power and aviation technology can, today, be seen in everything from the fact that we live in a world not dominated by fascism or communism, to the fact that when you fly anywhere in the world, say from Bangalore to Bangkok, the International Civil Aviation Organization dictates that pilots and air traffic controllers speak English. This is a lesson that cannot be learned too thoroughly: if we become complacent, other nations can and will surpass our achievements.

As we look forward to the events that will define the 21st Century, as viewed by the historians of yet future centuries, there is no doubt that the expansion of human civilization into space will be among the great achievements of this era. We have the opportunity, and I would say the obligation, to lead this enterprise, to explore worlds beyond our own, and to help shape the destiny of this world for centuries to come.

I am convinced that leadership in the world of the 21st Century and beyond will go to the nation that seeks to fulfill the dreams of mankind. We know what motivates those dreams. Exploring new territory when it becomes possible to do so has defined human striving ever since our remote ancestors migrated out of the east African plains. The human imperative to explore new territories, and to exploit the resources of these territories, will surely be satisfied, by others if not by us. What the United States gains from a robust, focused program of human and robotic space exploration is the opportunity to define the course along which this human imperative will carry us.

The Vision for Space Exploration affords the United States nothing less than the opportunity to take the lead, not only in this century but in the centuries to follow, in advancing those interests of our nation that are very much in harmony with the interests of people throughout the world. Space will be explored and exploited by humans. The question is: which humans, from where, and what language will they speak? It is my goal that Americans will be always among them. If this is the future we wish to see, we have a lot of work to do to sustain the Vision which takes us there. To me, the choice could not be more compelling.

I thank you for your hospitality today, and again extend my hertfelt thanks to all of you for your commitment to regaining the sense of initiative that has driven our past successes.

SpaceRef staff editor.