History is replete with examples of great nations sliding slowly into decline. Six hundred years ago, Ming Dynasty China sent Admiral Zheng He on seven voyages throughout the western Pacific and Indian Ocean to explore, collect tribute, and expand trade. Zheng’s ships were massive and state-of-the-art: 400 feet long, 170 feet wide, powered by nine masts. His voyages were a huge success. But after his death, subsequent generations sought to minimize his accomplishments. China’s focus turned inward, its energy was expended on building the Great Wall, and it started to decline. Great nations do great things, but when they stop challenging themselves, their greatness tends to recede into historical memory.
Nearly 60 years ago, the United States took up a great challenge. Its young president, John F. Kennedy, stated, “I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Kennedy’s tragic death a few years later galvanized the nation in its pursuit of his goal, and on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong made his famous “small step.” All told, the United States sent nine expeditions to the moon, six landing on its surface, each traveling on massive 363-feet-tall, three-stage, Saturn V rockets that were modern marvels. Then, as Americans stood on the surface of the moon, their government decided to cancel the final three lunar missions, Apollos 18, 19, and 20, in order to shift NASA’s focus to the earth-orbiting Skylab space station and then to the Space Shuttle. For the past 45 years, the United States has been effectively locked in low-Earth orbit and does not presently even have the capability to launch its own astronauts into space. Great nations do great things, until they don’t and cease to be great.
However, there are examples of nations that shifted from decline to resurgence. Rome, Byzantium, France, Great Britain, and even China have had periods of decline followed by years of revitalization, often through investment in new technologies, new economic methods, or innovative approaches to governance. The United States itself has had several cycles of retreat that were followed by a generation of optimism, with the most recent example being Ronald Reagan’s presidency coming on the heels of Jimmy Carter’s years of malaise. Today, the nation appears poised once again on the edge of a breakout after nearly two decades fighting terrorists abroad and pangs of self-loathing stateside. Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” which grates upon both those who believe the nation never lost its luster and those who believe it never had it, has infused American economic, diplomatic, and national-security policies with a new sense of confidence and purpose. Yet still, great nations must do great things, and the United States finds itself searching for an outward expression of its energy and direction.
Great nations do great things, until they don’t and cease to be great.
President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In December of last year, President Trump gave NASA its marching orders and set a lofty goal of his own. “The directive I’m signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery….It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use. This time we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint — we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps someday to many worlds beyond.”
Dreams, of course, are for nothing without a means to accomplish them. One month later, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk captured the world’s attention when he successfully launched his personal sports car, complete with a mannequin in a space suit, into orbit atop his company’s new Falcon Heavy rocket. Musk had founded the company, SpaceX, in 2002 for the purpose of creating a commercial enterprise capable of establishing a colony on Mars. Although Falcon Heavy cannot lift as much as the Apollo program’s Saturn V, it doesn’t really have to. Advancing technology and miniaturization mean that the 35,000 lbs of cargo SpaceX can send into lunar orbit might be just as useful as the 107,000 lbs the Saturn V could lift, especially if the effort is for a paying customer and SpaceX is pursuing a profit.
China’s ventures upon the sea did not result in world leadership. But two centuries later, a great British leader, Queen Elizabeth I, issued a charter that provided the regulatory architecture for the founding of the British East India Company, one of the first commercially traded companies in the world, helping to establish the British Empire. Today America, under the leadership of President Trump, faces a choice. It must decide if is satisfied to have made those first nine voyages and six landings on the moon, or if it wants to reverse the mediocrity that followed by creating a regulatory environment that incentivizes the emerging space economy. Great nations do great things, until they don’t and cease to be great. Our private sector has shown the potential to do great things in space. We should be behind its efforts every step of the way.