President Trump signaled what hopefully will become a vigorous return to space exploration by the United States when he reconstituted the National Space Council. Dormant since the end of the George H.W. Bush administration, the Council’s chairman, Vice President Mike Pence, and its new Executive Secretary, Dr. Scott Pace, have vowed to build a new manned space program to reach the moon and beyond to Mars. A new era of cooperation with the private sector space leaders such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Vulcan Aerospace and Boeing will be crucial to the success of the effort. Also crucial will be a more robust federal research and development commitment in the fields of physical science, advanced computing and communications, software and engineering. As with the two previous boom cycles of aerospace development, in World War II and the Apollo program, one of the main beneficiaries of the aggressive new effort will be the U.S. manufacturing sector.
The federal space program has languished since the heyday of the Apollo program. The last man on the moon landed 46 years ago. The fall of the Soviet Empire reduced the national security imperative for a space race, and the launch disasters of the shuttle program soured enthusiasm for an aggressive approach. High hopes for international cooperation at a time when “the end of history” was seriously debated resulted in the bureaucratic and overly cautious space station era of the 2000s and into the present decade. The Obama administration had little interest in revamping the program.
In the last decade, however, the rise of China and other competitors in space slowly led to recognition of the commercial promise and the national defense peril of falling behind in this field. Fortunately, visionary new players in the space launch business at the same time saw the commercial opportunity and helped fill the void left by the unimaginative federal program.
In the 1960s during the apex of the space race, almost three-quarters of one percent of U.S. GDP was devoted to federally funded research related to aerospace, especially for the Kenned-inspired Apollo program. Today such a figure would amount to about $150 billion. Instead, in 2015 (the latest comprehensive data available), total federal funding for all research and development (R&D) was $131 billion, which includes $64 billion for defense related research. In the important fields important to innovation, $12 billion was allocated for all forms of engineering, $6.5 billion for the physical sciences, and $3.7 billion for computer science and engineering. Total inflation-adjusted Federal R&D is down 18% since 2010. Civil space expenditures were about 21% of non-defense R&D in 2000 but fell to 13% by 2010. Much of the federal effort has migrated to the life sciences for health-related work, which accounted for 53% of federal non-defense R&D in 2015. The business sector now accounts for two-thirds of all domestic R&D, but only 26% of basic research, which is the fountainhead of innovation for new technology.
Several high-tech billionaires have stepped up to continue the American quest to conquer the newest frontier: outer space. Paul Allen, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have all devoted considerable imagination and resources to create new space technology. Their firms—especially SpaceX, Stratolaunch Systems and Blue Origin—have begun to have some success in creating the launch, reentry and long-haul space vehicles needed to overcome the low-earth orbit quagmire and create the possibility for deep space exploration. Much of their success results from a willingness to take chances and try new approaches using and perfecting existing technology resulting from basic research.
Technology historian Walter Isaacson uses the term “innovation progression” to describe the process of building on previous basic research, often produced by federally supported scientists and dedicated development programs, to find new applications for cutting-edge technology. The symbiotic relationship between government basic research and private sector technology development depends on a steady stream of new funding, for which private firms only infrequently have the resources.
Vice President Pence recognizes the need to link innovative private sector firms to federal research resources, and that both national defense and commercial leadership are vitally linked to superiority in space technology. New approaches to regulation are needed to allow the space entrepreneurs to succeed. Support also flows from paying private contractors for launch services and the creation of new technologies to support long-term survivability in space, faster communications and better space management capabilities. But more resources for basic research in the physical sciences and engineering are also needed to seed a faster rate of innovation and commercialization.
Much of modern American technology leadership, such as for computing, semiconductors, communications, new materials, jet and rocket propulsion, the internet and artificial intelligence grew out of the symbiotic relationship since World War II between basic research and creative private sector commercialization. Great American manufacturers like IBM, Intel, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Qualcomm, Honeywell, as well as technology giants like Google and Microsoft have been part of the innovation progression. But if the United States does not lead on new frontiers, it will cede the field to China, who is challenging the U.S. in defense and commercial sectors. Quantum computing, laser communications, robotics, new propulsion systems, 3D printing and artificial intelligence will all be part of the space technologies of the future and can help drive American leadership, as articulated by Vice President Pence. Leadership in these fields, however, will require sustained and properly funded basic research, ingenuity in regulation and public-private cooperation.