The Soviet Union's stunning launch of Sputnik sixty years ago on October 4, 1957, was far more disturbing to our national psyche at the time than the threats we see today. It jolted America out of its technological complacency.
And America responded. We invested in a generation of scientists and engineers through the National Defense Education Act. And we created NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, to assure we were never surprised or surpassed by rival powers in space or by new technologies. Within 12 years we had landed on the moon, placed vital reconnaissance and scientific satellites into orbit, and began the IT revolution that grew from the Apollo era computers.
Today, we are a spacefaring and also a space-dependent nation. Military, civil, and commercial space activities are essential to our nation's security, and offer the potential for dramatic future economic growth. Space capabilities are vital when our military takes out a terrorist target with precision munitions, when deadly hurricanes threaten our shores, and when inventors work on revolutionary new concepts such as driverless cars and automated delivery drones. This dependence developed over the past 50 years when space was viewed as a benign environment. But now, that's changing.
While we are not in a highly visible moon race, we face growing challenges from foreign competitors who understand well space's strategic importance. In the past decade, China and Russia have grown their space capabilities far faster than we ever thought possible. Even less advanced nations such as Iran and North Korea have launched satellites. Some of our potential adversaries are demonstrating counter-space capabilities that could put critical U.S. space assets at risk even as we have reduced spending on military space programs to the lowest level in a decade -- even as aging systems need to be replaced.
We certainly don't want to have a new Sputnik moment, in which once-secure space assets become suddenly vulnerable. Nor do we want NASA – whose inflation-adjusted funding is below where it was in the mid 1990's -- to forever be remembered for its past glories in human exploration. And we certainly don't want to see other nations, who increasingly see space as a vital, growing economic opportunity, to surpass us in a market that we created.
Fortunately, Thursday's first public meeting of the newly revitalized National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and attended by senior Cabinet members, demonstrates that this administration sees space as a vitally important domain for national security, commerce, and discovery. This high-level attention is welcome and overdue, as much needs to be done on the policy, tax and regulatory front to ensure the continued vitality of U.S. space activities.
On the national security front, North Korea's recent provocative missile and nuclear weapons tests underscore the need to replenish and broaden our satellite early warning systems, and to increase funding for national security space advanced development. Congress should act now to raise or eliminate the Budget Control Act of 2011 spending caps so we can recapitalize these national security space assets and maintain our technological superiority on the high frontier without affecting other vital national security investments.
Then there is NASA, which continues to make amazing discoveries and seeks to push beyond Earth orbit with crewed missions. But most Americans are unaware that NASA's budget has declined by 22 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1991, impacting NASA's ability to execute programs in a timely manner, delayed the agency's progress with crewed deep space missions and reducing its' ability to fund transformative research. A recovery of NASA's lost purchasing power would provide program stability, enable greater spending efficiencies, and position our nation to lead the first human exploration of Mars and conduct other incredible missions throughout the 21st century.
Nor can the $335 billion global commercial space market be left behind. Outdated and burdensome government regulations, combined with anti-competitive corporate tax structures, place the U.S. commercial space industry at risk of being surpassed by more nimble international competitors. An adjustment of our satellite and space system export policies to account for technological change, combined with a lower corporate tax rate that doesn't punish overseas profits, will help our industry become more competitive.
The U.S. government can also assist American industry by preserving a reasonable allocation of spectrum, to enable space communications services and new satellite applications, and by stepping up efforts to closely monitor the orbital environment and provide incentives for space actors to reduce hazardous debris.
All these measures are required to ensure that space, increasingly vital to our nation's security and economic future, remains a venue where America excels. As Sputnik showed, Americans respond decisively when confronted with a challenge. Maintaining our space leadership is a challenge worthy of a great nation and one which we hope the new National Space Council will help assure that we meet.
David F. Melcher is president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents 446 American manufacturers involved in defense, civil aviation and space.
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