Losing Leadership in Space

By Scott Pace

Fifty years ago, a young John F. Kennedy launched this nation on an audacious mission.  In his famous “Moon” speech at Rice University he not only pledged to send a man to the Moon and return him to earth, he also promised to make America “the world’s leading space-faring nation.”

Ohioans have played a critical role in meeting the challenge of Apollo and truly making the United States a space-faring nation.  John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, and Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon. Ohio has also been the beneficiary of NASA investments through the Glenn Research Center which today employs some 3,400 people and provides an estimated $1.36 billion in overall economic impact.  Ohioans, as did every American, gained immeasurably from seeing one of their fellow citizens set foot on the Moon and realizing one of mankind’s oldest dreams.

Today that dream and the goal of America as the world’s leading space-faring nation is in peril.   Another young President is undoing President Kennedy’s vision.  Four years after his election, Barack Obama’s policies have dealt devastating blows to NASA, and inflicted real harm to Ohio businesses and U.S. international leadership

After the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, NASA was given a renewed mission in human exploration.  Under the Vision for Space Exploration – which was supported by both Democratic and Republican Congresses – NASA would regain its leadership on the frontiers of space, return to the Moon and then voyage ever further, to the asteroids and Mars.

President Obama embraced that plan as a candidate in 2008.  However, two years later in a surprise move buried in the NASA budget, he killed plans for building the spacecraft necessary to reach the Moon. The President has no realistic replacement plan and the consequences are turmoil in industry and Congress, as well as in Ohio.

In an open letter to the president, Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lowell called President Obama’s cuts “devastating,” and added, “For the United States, the leading space-faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”

Today Americans are dependent upon the Russians for trips up to the International Space Station (ISS) and will be dependent for years to come. Our space shuttles are in museums, while stores and businesses are shuttered along the Space Coast – bearing mute testimony to the failure of this President to offer real leadership.  In rare bipartisan agreement, members of both parties of Congress have opposed the President’s plans for NASA.  .

Unlike the Apollo program which stayed on track due to specific deadlines and direction, costs for the ISS have increased due to delays, politics and a lack of focus. Over the past four years all of NASA is looking like the ISS project. After months of dithering, the agency has awarded contracts for the development of a ‘new’ Space Launch System (SLS) that is similar to others proposed earlier.  But where will the SLS – if it is ever built – go?  To the Moon, an asteroid or two, or maybe, as was more recently proposed a Lagrange Point between the Earth and the Moon?  No real mission has emerged and the suppositions vanish as quickly as they appear.

We can do better and we must do better for Ohio and our nation.  Obama’s lack of vision has left NASA directionless.  There still is a chance to change course, to think anew and act anew.  NASA requires clear, decisive, and steadfast leadership for its mission, its goals, and our vital national interests.

Absent leadership from the President, members of Congress must provide the  steadiness of purpose, coherence, and bipartisan support that our nation’s space community needs and deserves.  It’s time to restore America to its rightful place of leadership in space along with new conquests in exploration and science to the benefit of Ohio, the nation and the world.


Scott Pace was Chairman of the Romney Space Policy Advisory Group.  Under President Bush he served as Assistant Director for Space and Aeronautics in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy before becoming Associate Administrator for Program Analysis and Evaluation at NASA.





  1. Doug, you have presented what all of us should see as a great challenge and ask “what can I do to get the USA back on track? ”
    Now folks how can we band together to effect the change in attitude /belief of our leadership in DC?

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