Examining the “why” and “how” of space exploration

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First published Nov. 6, 2012 at Spacepolitics.com

Regardless of the outcome of [Tuesday’s] election, there will be some key challenges for space policy in the next four years. Can NASA’s current approach to human spaceflight and space exploration be sustained given the nation’s fiscal challenges? If not, what should replace it? At a forum last week on Capitol Hill organized by the Marshall Institute, panelists offered their own prescriptions for a revamped, more sustainable approach to space exploration.

“Right now, I fear that our national leadership is on the verge of canceling all deep space human exploration,” warned Charles Miller, president of NextGen Space LLC and the former senior advisor for commercial space at NASA. “We are on the edge of a cliff. No matter who wins, we are probably looking at a return to a Clinton-era policy where human spaceflight is the ISS and only the ISS. Deep space exploration is on the verge of being deferred for another decade as a luxury we can’t afford.”

Miller, in his speech (his prepared remarks are published in this week’s issue of The Space Review) argued that the “why” of space exploration should be to expand human civilization (featuring free markets and free people) across the solar system. He warned, though, that this goal alone wasn’t sufficient to merit support from the American public. “This was Newt Gingrich’s mistake in Florida in late January,” Miller said. “Newt mistook the repeated standing ovations he received from the hundreds of space industry people in that room in Florida for something that the far larger electorate cared about. We all need to learn from his mistake.”

He called for a “pragmatic” alternative strategy that he outlined in a five-point plan that leverages the capability of the private sector, particularly in commercial space transportation, and alternative contracting models like that used in NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. That, he argued, had national security as well as commercial and exploration benefits. “Our national security is harmed because US launch vehicles are more expensive, and less reliable, because they fly less often,” he said. “Our national security is harmed when it depends on Russian rocket engines.”

Two other panelists, while not offering plans as detailed as Miller’s, also made the case for more pragmatic approaches for space exploration. “I am very concerned about calls for bold missions,” said Adkins, president of Adkins Strategies, LLC and a former staff director of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee. “I’m worried that a bold vision that says that you have to do something like Apollo is akin to swinging for the fences, where, yes, you might get a home run, but it’s more likely you’re going to strike out, particularly in this environment.”

Any program, Adkins said, needs to be broken up into smaller, more feasible steps—“singles, doubles, and triples” in his analogy—to maintain momentum. “I think the greatest threat to human space exploration is to continue to have unrealistic expectations and to continue to go nowhere.”

James Vedda, author of the recent book Becoming Spacefarers (reviewed here), argued for the importance of building up infrastructure to sustain human exploration and development over the long term. He noted that the settlement of the American West didn’t really take off until some key infrastructure, such as railroads and telegraphs, were put in place starting in the mid 19th century. “The same is going to be true for space development,” he said.

“What we did in Apollo was brilliant; it achieved its goals,” Vedda said. “But it was not something put in place to spread humanity across the solar system.” To accomplish that goal, he said, we need to move to turn cislunar space into an “industrial park,” building up experience and also creating value that can lead to the next steps. “We don’t want to do this like an athletic competition, where you have this finish line” after which you go home. “We want to have things that have staying power.”

Beyond Miller’s five-point plan the panelists didn’t propose much in the way of specific initiatives to implement the changes they would like to see. None saw the need for major structural policy changes, like the creation of a new National Space Council. In addition, a NASA-specific BRAC to reduce the agency’s overhead might be useful but would be a “political nonstarter,” as Adkins put it. He did suggest it may be more feasible to do a “federal BRAC” involving NASA and other agencies, like the Department of Energy and NIST. “At the end of it, NASA could be a net beneficiary,” he suggested.

“These are very challenging times. There is a path through this,” Adkins said. “Budget will constrain policy and drive it.”


Jeff Foust (jeff@thespacereview.com) is the editor and publisher of The Space Review. He also operates the Spacetoday.net web site and the Space Politics and NewSpace Journal weblogs. Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not represent the official positions of any organization or company, including the Futron Corporation, the author’s employer.