Newly re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced plans for a series of space missions in the coming years that will place Russia significantly ahead of the United States in terms of space-based capabilities.

Putin’s announcements, which were delivered via a Russian language documentary that was shared on social media leading up to last weekend’s election, include an unmanned Mars mission as early as next year, as well as manned Lunar missions to follow soon thereafter.

“Our specialists will try to make landings on the poles, because there is reason to believe that there can be water there. There, there is progress to be made, studies of other planets, distant space can be started from there,” Putin said of the planned moon missions.

Putin’s new emphasis on space could be seen as a part of an effort to recapture some of the prestige of the former Soviet Union – something that could be said of most of the Russian president’s efforts, but it’s important to remember that the glory days of the Soviet Union’s space enterprises were never based solely on bragging rights… they were born out of the pursuit of tactical supremacy.

On October 4th, 1957, the world’s first ever artificial satellite, a 22 inch long, 184 pound sphere, beeped to life in the cold darkness of space. The Soviet Union had not only accomplished an incredible feat of engineering, they had done something that, until then, had been relegated to the realm of fantasy in most people’s minds: bridging the gap between humanity and the heavens.

In the centuries to come, that fateful day may be remembered as among the long list of early space accomplishments that led to humanity’s eventual expansion throughout the stars – as the banners or flags that these missions were carried out under begin to fade to time, and only the ingenuity, the heroism, and the romance of early space flight remains. Back in 1957, however, Sputnik’s launch was seen as anything but a triumph for mankind… here in the United States, Sputnik was a threat to our future survival.

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Sputnik: A simple device with ominous implications. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

From that day, it took the United States only 298 days to stand up its own, federally funded, space agency tasked with recreating and ultimately exceeding Soviet capabilities in orbit. Presented as a civilian-focused endeavor, the U.S. government used a combination of emphasis on science and a concerted public relations effort to create an image of almost friendly competition, as though America’s space based efforts were about capturing prestige … rather than the ultimate high ground.

The prestigious lacquer adorning America’s space program hid an underlying fear of Soviet dominance in the burgeoning battlespace above our heads, as well as the sometimes less than reputable means the American effort utilized to offset the capability gap demonstrated by Sputnik’s launch. Nazi scientists like Wernher von Braun, who developed the V2 rockets that rained down on England during World War II, were officially redesignated and (according to some reports) provided false histories and documentation to allow them to assume senior roles in the fledgling space agency through things like Operation Paperclip.

NASA was given the funding, the resources, and the expertise it needed to win the space race, not because the United States was so eager to place an orbital feather in its cap… on some level, the space race was a fight for survival, gussied up in shiny patriotic rhetoric that remains bright enough, even in our memories, to help us gloss over the parts of the story that aren’t quite in keeping with the PR spin. Even now, with the benefit of hindsight, many see the Apollo moon missions as a matter of American showmanship, rather than a very intentional demonstration of our technical prowess.

Now, as China and Russia both move to expand their footholds in orbit and beyond, the United States continues to stifle funding to its own space agency, hindering the development of the much-touted (and delayed) Space Launch System that was to become the most powerful rocket platform on the planet.

An artist’s breakdown of the Space Launch System (courtesy of NASA)

President Trump has recently reinvigorated debate about the establishment of a space-based branch of the military, seemingly acknowledging the growing importance of the orbital battle space, but it seems the American government, and indeed the American people, may have lost sight of what NASA was always there to do in the first place: push the boundaries of what the United States could accomplish in space in a way that’s easy to package for domestic consumption and external diplomacy.

A military branch in space would certainly draw a great deal of press, but with many around the world striving to paint the United States as a war-like imperial power, bullying its way into North Korea’s nuclear business and causing trouble in the South China Sea with its military presence, devoting all space-centric federal funding into combat applications benefits the United States tactically, but not necessarily strategically. Perceptions matter, and that’s why NASA was first flagged as a “civilian” space agency.

Regardless of how it’s labeled, be it a military branch or a civilian space agency, the United States is in serious danger of falling behind competitors like Russia and China in orbit. As the country comes to its senses regarding the dangers looming in the night sky, it’s important to learn from the last time we found ourselves in this very predicament: playing catch up in a race that, secretly we understood could mean life or death, but publicly, gave us all something to root for.

The Apollo 11 astronauts, left to right, Commander Neil A. Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the USS Hornet, listen to President Richard M. Nixon on July 24, 1969. (Courtesy of NASA)

NASA, comprised of scientists, military personnel, and even some Nazi war criminals (depending on whose side of the story you believe) became more than the sum of its parts because of the way their efforts were presented to the American people and to the world. They endeavored to push the reaches of humanity’s capabilities – but in doing so, they were working to keep the United States safe.

An arguably ugly mess of people and aspirations, brought together and packaged by a concerted marketing effort, and tasked with taking the orbital hill… all with a smile, a wink, and a salute to the kids watching on TV, made NASA not only legendary, but indispensable to the Cold War effort.

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Now, with what seems like a second Cold War already underway, it may be time to start diverting funding back to the program that helped us win this fight once already. Funneling money into private space organizations like SpaceX may make resupplying the International Space Station more affordable, but it’s NASA that won the Space Race.

And, with the proper funding, it could be NASA that does it again.

Feature image courtesy of NASA