The Buzz

Lessons from the Cold War: Why Man’s First Trip to Mars is a Matter of National Security

A manned trip to Mars has the ability to captivate the American imagination and produce an emotional connection to and a broader appreciation of space. Harvesting the American public’s appreciation for space—and the technology’s based within it—will be vital if the U.S. is to improve its national security. Without broad public support for increases in space-based national security investments, the U.S. is likely to fall behind strategic competitors putting Washington’s military preeminence in jeopardy. Creating a personal link with the importance of space should therefore be a major priority for policy makers as the U.S. considers a trip to Mars. The Cold War’s space race is proof of this.

The U.S. is in need of broader public support for crucial space-based national security investments and the first manned mission to Mars could be the best opportunity for generating an important personal connection with this essential component of American national security.

Several organizations, both government and private, have made plans to send humans to the Red planet within the next 10-15 years. This would undoubtedly be a monumental event: humans would—for the first time—step foot on another planet. It would signal an important triumph from a broader perspective of humanity’s place in the universe which would resonate with each and every American as they followed along.

Space based capabilities represent crucial components of America’s military portfolio. The United States uses space-based assets for a number of military and commercial purposes. From intelligence and command and control, to logistics coordination and location services, to early warning systems. Space is without a doubt a keystone of American national security. U.S. dependence on space-based assets creates a huge asymmetric opportunity for American advisories as well. This isn’t a secret, however, and countries who wish to challenge the United States are already making similar investments in their own space-based military assets. To counter these threats, the United States needs to significantly increase the portion of its defense budget that is focused on space-based military assets.

Without public support, increasing spending for efforts in space is unlikely to happen. Given the recent cuts in the U.S. defense budget—driven largely by the sequester—it is unlikely the United States will be able to maintain its military advantage without significant budget increases. In (FY) 2000, the national security space budget was $15 billion. Unfortunately, the DoD budget allocation for space efforts has been on a steady decline since 2000, with the (FY) 2016 budget sitting at a meager $7.1 billion. While the United States is decreasing spending on military space investments, countries like China are doing the opposite.

Sadly, the American public has a tradition of a national attention deficit disorder with regard to space and requires the creation of a personal connection when it comes to significant budget increases for space-based activities. During the lead up to the success of Apollo 11, Pew polls showed the majority of Americans supported the U.S. space effort despite its enormous cost. What’s interesting about this example, however, is that the public’s concern and approval of America’s space program saw a steady decrease immediately following the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.

In the three years that followed, television viewership steadily decreased, with the exception of the near disastrous Apollo 13, to the point that moon landings were no longer major news. This was because the country believed it was truly a “race” and once the Apollo 11 astronauts had touched down on the lunar surface and returned safely to earth the race was over. Further, a public opinion poll taken during the space race asked Americans, “if the Russians were not in space, and we were the only ones exploring space, would you favor or oppose continuing our space program at the present rate?” 60.4 opposed, 29% were in support and 10.6% were uncertain. Clearly, the Cold War competition drove public interest in the space program, which the United States was able to leverage for matters of national security.