"On the Edge of the Earth: The Future of American Space Power" is a good book with good and bad timing. Its chief complaint - that America has no coherent space policy - is no longer quite apt. The Bush administration is serious about space. Still, this book serves as a useful primer, a guide to the current situation and a set of recommendations worth heeding. Steven Lambakis is a senior analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy, disciple of Colin Gray and the School of Thinking Big Thoughts. Much of what Mr. Lambakis does here is an attempt to link space to classical strategic and political thinking. Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, the Second Lateran Council, the Federalist Papers, even the Sword of Damocles and Janus the Two-Faced God of Doors get mention. The author's zeal to locate space policy thus is valid, and a service to those who fall into the "read one book" category, as well as to the residents of Washington, D.C.'s relevant stovepipes: engineers, technocrats, military officers. The left might also give it a ponder.
Mr. Lambakis harks to tradition in two other ways: No gender-neutral pronouns here; it's still just "his," all "man" and "mankind," by golly. And he proclaims a sense of nation not heard much anymore. Space is America's "Second Manifest Destiny." We're both a space power and a space-faring people. He's right. We belong up there . . . men and women. Mr. Lambakis also commands the details; he provides an excellent precis of what the space endeavor has become. It's not just that we've got a hundred billion dollars invested overhead, or that we've got over 700 operational satellites, four shuttles, and one chunk of space station dodging 150,000 pieces of space debris, most too small to track . . . it's that we need space for everything from watching TV to fighting wars. Many other nations (also a good precis here) have space programs and purchase access to space. But the United States is uniquely dependent, and therefore uniquely vulnerable.
And yet, no administration until the present one even tried to produce a space policy worthy of the name. We hold to certain valid concepts, such as "freedom of navigation," unimpeded peaceful use, and no nation's right to claim what's out there as exclusive national property. But we shy away from taking the necessary military steps to protect and enforce our freedom, and to deny it to our adversaries in war. For this failure, Mr. Lambakis adduces several reasons.
One is lack of effective technology, at least until recently and at least at the unclassified level. Although crude anti-satellite weapons have been around for decades, actively protecting our satellites - and attacking hostile objects - is much harder, especially in the higher orbits. Still, technology matures; there may be a lot of stuff sorta getting ready to go up.
Another reason is bureaucratic. Mr. Lambakis declines to consider NASA's future. He does, however, blast the Air Force for poor stewardship of space: an indictment echoed in the January 2001 report of the U.S. Space Commission and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's decisions last month to get the Air Force's attention by, among other things, establishing a four-star Air Force space billet and suggesting the promotion of more space officers. It's a long way from Star Fleet, or even a separate Space Service. But it's definitely a start.
Another dilemma is fuzzy thinking. From Ike to Pike, i.e., from President Eisenhower to John Pike of the Federation of American scientists, there's been great reluctance and/or horror about "militarizing space." As though space hasn't been militarized since the first ICBM passed through and the first spy satellite went up. Several treaties and agreements wisely prohibit the stationing or testing of nuclear weapons in space; the ABM Treaty bans space-based systems. But we may need to place non-nuclear weapons, especially kinetic kill and directed energy weapons, in space. As for the ABM Treaty . . . we're no more bound by an agreement with a non-existent nation than we're still married to the people we divorced long ago. And yet a third barrier: pure inertia. The problem, Mr. Lambakis points out, is that our safety is transient and our superiority no God-given right. And unless we get busy, and soon, we're going to lose it, perhaps in a war, perhaps through serious damage to the economy, perhaps both. Mr. Lambakis may be exaggerating when he claims: "The national vision for space will decide everything else." But perhaps not by all that much. Certainly, the Bush administration understands the vital importance of space. How much they achieve may be determined by whether or not enough people read books like this one, and take the lessons to heart.Philip Gold is director of defense and aerospace studies at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.