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Ad gentem per astra
On the size of California, how Texas compares to John F. Kennedy's America, and why it's good for us that NASA is going back to the Moon
In principle, the state of California is big enough to have its own space program. With a $3 trillion economy, it is in a class with Japan, whose $5 trillion economy sustains a full-fledged space program.
■ Likewise for Ohio, which with 12 million people is bigger than Israel, which has had an official space agency since 1983. And the same for Texas, whose $2 trillion economy is within striking distance of the $3.6 trillion economy (in 2017 dollars) of the entire United States in 1961, when John F. Kennedy announced the plan to go to the Moon.
■ Despite having the people and the wealth to drive their own ambitious space programs, these (and the other states) still pool their efforts behind NASA. Sharing a common agency and rallying behind it is an identity-building exercise for Americans, almost as much as the collaboration serves as a force multiplier.
■ After all, NASA routinely touts the productivity of its work in partnership with other countries' space agencies. The same thing could, hypothetically, be done with a California-ASA, a Texas-ASA, and even a Delaware-ASA and a Wyoming-ASA -- their independent work could be federated under a common umbrella for maximum impact.
■ But having a single agency, a common identity, and a merged pool of resources allows NASA to serve a nation-binding role, by driving toward audacious goals. It has been a while since we've had a really bold headline goal of that sort, but the successful launch of the Artemis-I rocket on a test flight to the Moon is the first highly tangible step in reviving that big-mission ideal.
■ Not every big mission worth doing has any real binding effect; nobody is going to get amped up over a national cybersecurity agenda, no matter how important it is to undertake. And not every big project will be necessary -- sometimes undertakings are done just because the obstacle is there.
■ But we're better off for having an agency like NASA, especially when it can commit to doing big things, in part and in essence, "just because we can". Those serve a mission of national identity in a way that no loose federation of state space agencies really could.