Being a hard core sci-fi fan and space nerd, I was rather dismayed when I learned that the United States would be terminating or reducing numerous space programs. One thing that concerned me the most is that the United States will no longer have an effective means of delivering payloads into orbit. While it has been suggested that we can hitch a ride with the Russians or others, hitch hiking is hardly the way a super power should be traveling.
I do recognize the need to reduce spending and I am also well aware that throwing money into space is not a smart thing to do. Rather, we should aim at getting the maximum return for our investment. This probably means cutting back on manned missions as well as cutting various programs. However, space is critical to the United States.
First, there is the matter of cold, hard space cash. Today’s information economy depends on the satellite system. Obviously enough, having a significant control over space assets and access is critical to having a significant stake in this economy. The United States cannot afford to become a hitch hiker along this information superhighway.
Second, this is the matter of national defense. From command & control to intelligence gathering, the ability to access and, if need be, dominate, orbital space is absolutely essential to our security and defense. We simply cannot afford to be a second rate player in this matter. As such, we need a reliable launch vehicle to provide us with access to orbit. We also need to keep our satellite systems and other space systems on the cutting edge.
Third, there is the matter of science. While the impact of space on science is often exaggerated, it is rather important for advancing our knowledge of the universe and also the earth. To be completely pragmatic, it is also very important for weather prediction and monitoring natural disasters (such as volcanoes dumping ash into the atmosphere).
Fourth, there is the matter of survival. We know for a fact that the earth has been hit by objects from space. We also know for a fact that there is a chance that we will be hit by something big enough to do serious damage and even exterminate our civilizations. As such, we have a critical need to remain active in space. Getting a bit beyond basic survival, space contains a vast untapped bonanza of energy and resources. While things like asteroid mining and orbital solar panels are science fiction, the economy of the near future could very well involve exploiting space in a way analogous to how we exploited North America. That is, space could be the next frontier of exploitable resources. We know that there is plenty of energy available (solar, for example) at the very least. While we were the leaders in the old frontier, we need not be leaders in the new frontier-but we can (and should) be.
Fifth, there is the matter of pride. Having a space program is part of maintaining super power status. While this might seem to be wasteful and vain (like having a sports car and a Rolex watch), the fact that space offers important benefits moves a space program beyond mere ostentation. If having a space program were merely a matter of showing off in an expensive way (like a drunk using $100 bills to light his cigar) I would be against it. However, it the reasons given above show it is more than that.
If the United States does not keep up in space, I am sure that other countries will be glad to step in and take our place at the table. On a more positive note, it does seem that there is some potential for private exploitation of space. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this will be a mere tourist trip to space gimmick or a robust private sector for space.