America's Renewed Space Ambitions Require Vigilance | Opinion

I remember watching the last time human footprints were left on the moon. I had just turned 15. I didn't think it would take 50 years for America to return—or for any other nation to arrive.

Weren't the Soviets racing us to the lunar surface when Neil Armstrong put the first boot into lunar dust in 1969? While we spent the next three years planting five more flags during the remaining Apollo missions, the USSR gave up. For them, it appeared, it wasn't about science or exploration or the sheer wonder of it all; it was about winning another victory for the communist system.

The Soviets racked up plenty of wins in the early years of the space race: first satellite, first living thing to orbit Earth (a dog launched days after Sputnik), first man in space, first man in orbit, first woman in space, first space walk. It took half the 1960s for America to ramp up to the series of achievements that enabled us to meet President Kennedy's deadline of putting a man on the moon before the decade's end.

As a kid, I thought there would be space tourism and moon bases, and maybe even footprints on Mars, in fairly short order. But while we have sent an impressive parade of hardware to the Martian surface, we have grown comfortable remaining within the limits of Earth's orbit for our manned exploits. This is to take nothing away from the shuttle missions or the International Space Station, but a lack of vision and an unwillingness to spend has chained us to within a few hundred miles of the ground.

But things are changing fast. The space station will now get regular visits from privately built SpaceX vehicles crewed by NASA astronauts, and very soon by private citizens. The Artemis program intends to put people back on the moon as soon as 2024, initiating a series of long stays designed to build toward the endurance required for travel to Mars, a journey that will take more than half a year.

The teenager in me is alive again with the thrill of this promise. I enjoyed beating the Russians in the '60s as much as any kid did, but for me it was always first and foremost about the incomparable awe of exploring the universe. As the years have passed, many nations (including Russia) have partnered with the U.S. in cooperative space travel. Nations without long legacies of spaceflights have notched unmanned milestones. Chinese craft have reached the Moon and, just last month, Mars. Iran launched a satellite into low Earth orbit over a decade ago. Japan has landed a spacecraft on an asteroid; it brought back soil samples last year.

Spacex sattelites
This long-exposure image shows a trail of a group of SpaceX's Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay as seen from the countryside some 185 km north of Montevideo near Capilla del Sauce, Florida Department, on February 7, 2021. Mariana SUAREZ / AFP/Getty Images

In other words, as we set our sights on newfound space ambitions, we're going to have plenty of company. While this may properly attract Star Trek-style wistfulness about global fraternity, an international cast of characters in space can echo the same real and potential tensions we face on Earth.

Russia and China announced their intentions this month to launch a joint lunar research station. They say the facility will be open to other nations, but no one knows what the coming years will bring in terms of the two countries' behavior.

While many nations are sending technology and now people into space, none appear to be anywhere close to America's capability to get people to the moon. Our target for a lunar return is 2024, while the first phase of this China-Russia moon base aims at least 10 years beyond that.

In those intervening years, however, there will be more manned and unmanned missions that will put Russia and China into space, allowing them to flex their expanding capabilities. There is, at present, no reason to view these missions as palpable threats of potential mischief or militarization. But if history teaches anything, it is that change can happen quickly, and can bring daunting challenges for the unprepared.

The 2019 creation of the United States Space Force as an independent branch of the military was a valuable step in both practicality and international PR. It told the world that as many nations reach into space, America will be there as it has been on Earth, to guard against actions that pose broad risk to the world. One would hope that this is at least one Trump administration achievement that Democrats will not seek to dismantle. Maintaining readiness for the future will require decades of bipartisan commitment.

The best-case scenario for that future involves voyagers of many nations achieving great things in Earth orbit, on the Moon and eventually on Mars and beyond. One of America's greatest achievements has been its contribution to a more stable and secure world. We would do well to carry those instincts beyond this planet, helping ensure a peaceful multinational future in space.

Mark Davis is a talk show host for the Salem Media Group on 660AM The Answer in Dallas-Ft. Worth, and a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and Townhall.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.