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Editor’s Note: Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, is the senior US senator from Florida. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “The United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward, and so will space.” Sixty years later – after sending men to the moon, spearheading the International Space Station and crafting a space telescope that can see billions of years into the past – America is still moving forward.

Our scientific and technological progress will be on full display on August 29, when NASA is slated to launch the Artemis I mission from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. Tens of thousands of Americans are expected to gather on our nation’s historic Space Coast to witness the event.

Artemis I’s purpose is to send an unmanned spacecraft to orbit the moon – but that will only be the beginning. Artemis I is the first in a series of new moon missions, which will hopefully culminate in a manned landing in 2025.

Even after decades of space exploration, these feats continue to inspire and astound. They show the power of human effort and ingenuity, and they bring invaluable new knowledge of our beautiful and mysterious universe.

But the merit of Artemis I isn’t purely scientific. For Floridians – and for all Americans – it’s also cause for patriotism and pride. Our journeys through the stars are a great chapter in the story of our nation. That those journeys have not come to an end, but are rather just getting started, demonstrates America’s continued greatness.

There are some who see things differently. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views the United States as a once-great nation on a path of decline. By dominating space, its leaders hope to hasten that decline and inaugurate a new era of Chinese geostrategic supremacy. In our own country, there are some who argue against further exploration of space. Some suggest it costs too much. Others suggest it isn’t necessary. And a handful believes America should no longer lead the world.

To them I say, look at history and think about the alternatives to a United States active in space exploration. So long as people are subject to fallen human nature – so long as power-hungry dictators seek to extort, conquer and dominate their neighbors – we should be unwilling to relinquish American greatness and discovery.

Because, like it or not, America is special. In the some 5,500 years of recorded human history, the existence of a nation committed to the equality of human dignity, the rule of law and the achievement of “liberty and justice for all” is very rare. That such a nation is also great, able to send rockets through the solar system and land astronauts on the moon, should be a cause for celebration. We cannot forget that the moment the US falls from power – the moment the CCP achieves global hegemony – is the moment totalitarianism and imperialism retake center stage in international politics.

The Orion spacecraft for NASA's Artemis I mission, fully assembled with its launch abort system, is lifted above the Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Oct. 20, 2021.

Our contest with Beijing extends beyond Earth, and it’s not just a matter of appearances and prestige. Mineral extraction, satellite communication and advanced weapon deployment are geostrategic assets of the future whose acquisition depends on control of space, and the CCP has its sights set on all of them.

Former President Donald Trump created the US Space Force to focus more resources on this underappreciated domain and to prevent our adversaries from supplanting us. We should continue that effort and establish a Space National Guard to enhance the new branch. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and I have drafted a bill to do just that, which Congress should pass immediately.

But simply strengthening the Space Force will not be enough – we must also maintain our scientific and technological edge.

That’s also why I introduced the Space Protection of American Command and Enterprise (SPACE) Act, a bill that would establish new safeguards against espionage and intellectual property theft in America’s public and private space industries. It’s also why I’ve repeatedly worked to reauthorize, strengthen and expand our Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, which are vital for spurring research and development in space.

In the coming years and decades, we must continue to pursue American greatness, in space and here on Earth, for our sake and the world’s. May that be a challenge that, in Kennedy’s words, “we are willing to accept, unwilling to postpone and… intend to win.”

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